Martha Minerva Franklin was one of the first to seek changes in the unequal and discriminatory realities of African American nurses in the United States. During the post-Civil War period when African Americans began joining the working class as free citizens, Franklin was dedicated to challenging a prejudiced society. Though very pale-skinned and often mistaken as white, Franklin identified strongly with her African American roots and worked alongside other African American nurses, hoping that they would be granted the support and equitable rights they deserved as medical professionals.
Born in New Milford, Conn., in 1870, Franklin was the middle child of Henry J. and Mary E. Gauson Franklin. She grew up in Meriden where she graduated from Meriden Public High School in 1890 as the only African American member of her class. Five years later she entered the Women’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in Philadelphia. Though the Philadelphia school was more racially inclusive than nurse training schools in New England, Franklin was once again the only African American graduate in the class of 1897. After graduation she returned to Connecticut where she worked as a private nurse in patients’ homes. Because she was isolated from other nurses at this point in her career, it was not until she moved to New Haven in the early 1900s that Franklin began to see the extent of the discrimination faced by her African American colleagues. Perhaps moved by the social-political activist groups forming in the New Haven area, Franklin began to explore ways to improve the working conditions for African American nurses.
In 1906 she sent out more than 500 notes to nurses, superintendents of nursing schools, and nursing organizations in order to gain a wider perspective on the outlook for African Americans in the field of nursing. After two years of research, Franklin determined that, while African American nurses were permitted to join the American Nurses Association (ANA), they were not admitted as equal members and could not work together within the organization to address concerns of segregation and discrimination. In 1908, she sent out 1500 handwritten letters inviting nurses to meet in order to organize a national association for “colored” nurses with the goal of collectively working to eliminate racial discrimination in the profession. The first meeting was held in New York City later that year and was attended by fifty-two African American nurses.
The National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) was founded at the 1908 meeting, and Martha Minerva Franklin became its first president. The organization’s goals were three-fold: first, to improve professional standards within the profession; second, to eliminate racial discrimination in the field; and third, to develop leadership among African American nurses. The organization grew and became more formal as more nurses joined and as African American doctors from the American Medical Association also joined the effort. By 1921, the NACGN numbered 2,000 members and an NACGN delegation was even received at the White House by President Warren G. Harding.
In 1928, Franklin moved to New York City where she enrolled in a graduate program at the Lincoln Hospital. Upon completion of the program she became a Registered Nurse and began to work in the New York City school system. She also continued her education and pursued a degree in Public Health Nursing at the Columbia University Teacher’s College, though she retired before completing all of the courses for the degree. Upon her retirement, Franklin returned to New Haven to live with her older sister.
Martha Minerva Franklin died in Meriden in 1968 at the age of 98 and is buried in the Walnut Grove Cemetery in Meriden. A pioneer in her field and an inspiration to many young African American nurses, she lived to see many of the NACGN’s goals accomplished and, in 1951, the organization merged with the ANA. In 1976, she was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame. Her gravesite is a stop on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.