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Mrs. Ethel Dillingham, Conqueror

Young Ethel Dillingham as WWII Army nurse
Young Ethel Dillingham as WWII Army nurse
Tribble Photography

I was born in Lakewood, New Jersey in the “sub sticks” - the boondocks. We had an outhouse and we warmed ourselves and cooked our food on a coal stove. It was during the Great Depression and it was rough back then. Black people didn’t have much of a chance to better themselves considering the added burden of outrageous racism as an everyday part of our lives.

Extreme situations call for extreme measures and my parents wanted a better life for my sister and me, so they sent us away from home to school in the late 1930’s. My sister was old enough to go to Cardinal Gibbons Institute, a Catholic boarding high school in St. Mary County, Maryland. I was too young for the boarding school, so I attended St. Peter Claver Elementary School on the same grounds. My parents made arrangements for me to live there until I reached the ninth grade. The school was operated by a group of Black women who would become known as the Oblate Sisters of Providence. They were the first order of sisters of African descent. The school was founded in 1828, approximately thirty eight years after the end of slavery. *Elizabeth Lange (Sr. Mary Lange) was one of the founders of the school that provided education for Black children in Baltimore. Unlike some southern states, Maryland did not have a law prohibiting the education of Blacks, but neither was education encouraged by local officials. There were a few small schools for Black children operated by Protestant groups, but there was little being done to educate the children of Black Catholics.

The sisters really gave me an education for life and everything that I needed to get along in this world. They were role models who looked like me. Consequently, armed with my strong Catholic faith and a good education, I knew that I could make something of myself. By this time, my parents were dead and I was out on my own in the world. I relied on my faith and I worked hard.

I went to nursing school and earned a registered nurses license in Baltimore, but I wanted to live in New York. Unfortunately, New York State would not accept reciprocity of license from Baltimore. I was determined to continue my nursing career in New York and began waiting tables in a New York restaurant while studying for the Board exams. I passed the exam with flying colors and went to work at the Harlem Hospital.

When the military opened its ranks to include Black people, I saw it as an opportunity and joined the Army during World War II serving as an Army nurse for approximately 3 years, achieving the rank of Captain. Up until this point in my life, I had not been around White people. My environment had been one of cultural enrichment, prayer, devotion, and higher learning. I had no idea of the cruelty ahead of me. I thank God for my background. Without such wonderful examples, encouragement, discipline and the Good News that Jesus is King, I would not have made it. The outside world was horrific!

There were very few Black nurses accepted into the Army because we only served the segregated Black troops in segregated hospitals or wards. While stationed in Arizona, I went to the base store like everybody else to get my uniform. The clerks would not serve me. I felt absolutely terrible! It was humiliating and I was angry. That was my first personal taste of ugly Jim Crowe. I was determined to rise above the ignorance and bigotry, so when I discharged from the Army I returned to New York to attend Columbia University where I earned a Bachelor Degree in Nursing Education. In 1949, I landed a job at the Veteran Administration Hospital in Dayton, Ohio.

Now, let’s talk about racism! My superiors at that hospital treated me like dirt. They tried to beat me down to the point where I would leave. My working environment was bitter but I prayed, held my head high, and I took no time off from work. I found comfort caring for the patients. I had to work twice as hard as everybody else. Not only did I work, I went back to school and earned a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

I worked at the Dayton VA for 27 years and was passed over numerous times for promotion. I was certainly qualified given the fact that for most of those years I was the only nurse in the hospital with a Master’s Degree. I was discriminated against for being Black and for being Catholic. I would not complain because I knew that the Lord bore my suffering with me. A change had to come! The status quo was just plain wrong. Justice finally prevailed and I climbed from staff nurse to Clinical Specialist. The Lord fought my battles for me.

The Catholic Church has shaped my life. I believe its teachings and I am grateful for God’s hand upon me. Since I came to Dayton, Ohio, I have been a member of St. John, St. James, Resurrection and St. Benedict the Moor. I love my parish family and will work to glorify the Lord as long as he gives me strength.



  • Susan 5 years ago

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Please keep more information about African American Catholics coming. I had no idea that their stories are so intense.