Whaley First Black Nursing Student at MMH

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Celebrating Black History Month

By Terry Rogers

Oveta Whaley Gray says that from the time she was small, she always wanted to be a nurse. Growing up as a black girl in Milford, she attended Benjamin Banneker until the 9th grade. Until 1962, she would have been required to attend a black high school in Dover had she wanted to attend past the 9th grade. The Board of Education for Milford School District had already attempted to desegregate Milford High School in 1954 when the Milford Eleven attempted to attend, but organizations from outside the city made it impossible for them to attend peacefully. However, by 1962, times had changed, allowing Ms. Gray to attend Milford High School with white students. She became the first black female to graduate from the high school in 1965, along with six male black students. In 1965, she made history again when she became the first black nursing student to graduate from the Milford Memorial Hospital Nursing School.

“There was a lot of prejudice in high school when we attended,” Ms. Gray said. “I had to ride a bus to school and kids on the bus were not very nice. There were many racial jokes on the bus, but once I got to school, it was better, although there was some racial ignorance. However, I was much more accepted in nursing school. In fact, I was elected President of the Delaware Nursing Student Association.”

In 1921, under the supervision of Mrs. Ruth Battles, Milford Memorial Hospital, now known as Bayhealth, an 18-month nurses program began. Originally, students were housed on the upper floors of the hospital before a separate building was opened next door. In 1947, the nursing students lived in the Baynum Home on South Walnut Street. By the time Ms. Gray attended, the nursing students resided in what is now an administrative office for the Bayhealth Campus.

“It was not difficult for me to get into the nursing school because I attended Milford High School,” Ms. Gray said. “Some of the students who attended the black high schools did have problems because it was believed the education they received at those schools was inferior. We were taught bedside nursing care. It was much more patient hands-on than it is today. Now, many RNs are more administrative.”

Ms. Gray said she worked in Delaware as a nurse for a year before joining the United States Army. She entered the Army Nurses Corps and eventually the Army Reserves. She left the military after having a child as her husband was military and it was much easier for her to find civilian employment. She and her husband have been married 40 years and have a daughter who is 39 and a son who is 35.

“I returned to school after getting my RN, earning my Bachelor’s Degree and Case Management Certification,” Ms. Gray said. “I became a nurse because I wanted to help people and that has always been the best part of my job. Milford prepared me well for patient care and I have always been grateful for what I learned there. I also must say that it was a strong faith in God as well as a very supportive family, a strong mother and grandmother, who encouraged me to set my goals high and achieve them.”

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