Hilda Richards Biography
Needed Better Climate and Catholic Education, Stung by Racism in the Midwest
Educator, health care activist
Dr. Hilda Richards is immediate past president of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), an organization representing 150,000 nursing professionals across the United States. She is Chancellor Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Indiana, and was the first dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Ohio University. In addition she is the first black academic dean and the first female academic dean in the school's history. Richards is a sought after advisor and lecturer, and is know for her generosity and persistence. This tireless educator has been a board member and advisor to many education and health organizations throughout her career and was the editor for the Journal of the National Black Nurses Association, a research publication for members of the NBNA. Richards retired in 2001 but remained active with organizations such as the Gary Education Development Foundation and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and worked with hospice care.
Hilda Richards was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, on February 7, 1936, to Rose Avalynne (Lynne) and Togar Ballard. Richards' parents separated when she was very young and because of family issues she spent her early years living between her father's home and the home of relatives in Hutchins, Kansas. As a child Richards had been told that her mother was deceased, but in 1942 Lynne purchased a new car and left her home in San Francisco en route to Chicago where young Hilda and Togar lived. On her way she stopped to purchase a motel near a small mining town in Wyoming. In Chicago, Richards was reunited with her mother. One day Lynne told the six year old she would take her shopping; instead they drove to Wyoming.
Needed Better Climate and Catholic
After some time in Wyoming managing the motel, doctors warned Lynne that the weather in Wyoming was unsuitable for the young child's health, so the two moved to San Francisco. There Lynne completed a degree in mortuary science, and later mother and daughter relocated again, this time to Hawaii were Lynne met and married Willis Young in 1949. The family eventually returned to the mainland and settled in tiny Sunflower, Kansas.
Lynne had strong opinions about the type of schooling her daughter should receive. "Mother believed in a good Catholic education, and she did not believe in a segregated education," Richards said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). But there was a problem; there were no Catholic schools in the area. In order to complete her education Richards was allowed to live in St. Louis in the home of an elderly white lady, where she earned seven dollars per week for being the woman's companion and serving at dinner parties.
Richards graduated from high school in 1953 and hoped to attend college. "My mother reared me to go to college," Richards said. "Paying for it was my problem. We had no money and there was no financial aid at that time." Richards did receive a partial scholarship to Webster College but it was not enough and the school did not offer a degree in medicine. "I wanted to be a doctor," Richards said. When Lynne weighed in on the matter, her advice was, "Don't just be a doctor, be a neurosurgeon." Richards wondered how she would be able to afford it, and there were other obstacles. The Midwest was very segregated.
Stung by Racism in the Midwest
During a high school assembly Richards met a representative from St. John's School of Nursing who invited her to apply to their nursing program. Richards attended an open house at the school and upon meeting the Mother Superior she asked about the possibility of attending the school. Mother Superior agreed, not realizing that, as Richards said, "I was sixth in my class and I could pass any old test they gave me." Richards took the tests but didn't hear from the school. She contacted the Mother Superior who told her that she tested well but that they had never had any Negro students, there were no private rooms, and white parents wouldn't be very happy if their daughters roomed with her. She suggested that if Richards pretended to be Mexican she would allow her to attend. Richards responded, "I have been Negro for seventeen years. If my parents find out that now I am something else they would be very upset." Richards told CBB, "Mother Superior was not amused; nor was I."
Richards' mother urged her to "push forward." Richards spoke with a priest who promised to discuss it with the local bishop, but going over Mother Superior's head only provoked anger. "If the archbishop tries to get a colored child into the school, she'll never get in," she told Richards. She could have stopped Richards; instead she suggested Hilda attend their sister school in Springfield, Missouri. She applied and was accepted.
By her second year in one of the most racist parts of the country, Richards was ready to leave. She was at the top of her class, but she felt the sting of prejudice personally because, as she told CBB, "I wasn't subservient." Fortunately she had a friend in one of the nuns who was appalled that racism was forcing Richards to leave. Nuns from the Springfield campus contacted the Mother Superior at the St. Louis campus, Richards' original choice. Richards was allowed to complete her coursework there, and in 1956 she became the first black nurse to graduate from the school. It had been a tough year; when it was over, Richards left for New York City where she had friends.
Education Found Psychiatry and
Planning to become a psychiatrist, Richards worked as a psychiatric nurse at Payne Whitney Hospital in New York and was among the first black nurses on the staff. After 11 months Richards left to join City Hospital of New York's new psychiatric facility and eventually became head nurse of the adolescent psychiatric unit.
Richards then aimed higher. She returned to school and secured a bachelor's degree in nursing education and married Alfredo Richards in 1961. In 1965 she completed a master's degree in education, and another in public administration in 1971. In 1976 Richards earned a doctorate degree in education.
The 1960s had been a time of great social change and activism. Richards did her part by joining the New York chapter of NBNA at its start in 1969 and was instrumental in organizing the national association, becoming a member in 1973. She became a national board member in 1974 and became first vice president in 1984. Richards later became parliamentarian in 1998 and took the president's seat in 1999, a post she held until 2003.
Raised Visibility of NBNA
Richards set out to raise the visibility of the NBNA. In 1985 she created the Journal of the National Black Nurses Association, a research publication targeting the nursing and academic communities. She testified on behalf of the NBNA on Capitol Hill on matters relating to the shortage of nurses and funding for nursing education. "The goal of the organization is to look at the health of the black community and to try to move forward the number of African-American nurses and their education levels," Richards told CBB. "Too many of our people go into the associate degree programs and never get to the baccalaureate level, the true professional degree," Richards added. "More of us need to move up to positions where we can make decisions."
Richards' accomplishments with NBNA are many. "We have increased the number of scholarships we offer and our linkages with other organizations, like the American Nurses Association," Richards said. "We are part of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (NCEMNA) and recently received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute of Health to increase the number of nurse researchers among the five ethnic groups we represent: Blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Filipinos, and Native Americans." With these funds the organization sets up research-oriented conferences and mentors students. NBNA also partners with women's health organizations and pharmaceutical companies who provide funds for research projects. NBNA presents issues to both major political parties through the Black Congress of Health, Law and Education (BCHLE), a group formed to make an impact on political issues important to the minority nursing community.
Richards does not forget the obstacles she had to overcome, and along the way her dedication and concern has helped many others achieve their own goals. Her "play daughter," Sefi Yadeta, a young Ethiopian student attending college in the United States, is just one example. Helping the young student during her college years in the United States, Richards came to view her as a permanent member of the family. Of helping others, Richards says, "I had a mother there for me every step of the way and I've had a lot of supporters. Young people should know that they need a support system. Also, understand that your history is behind you. Set your goals and be persistent. I integrated schools and I am still alive!"
National Black Nurses Association, Inc., www.nbna.org/index1.htm (November 15, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dr. Hilda Richards on November 3, 2004, and through material obtained from Dr. Richards.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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