Nurse Thereasea Elder exhibits all of the lodeplus.com’s “America Inspired” traits. Leadership, passion, and sacrifice are evident in her life’s journey. I choose to nominate her for the category “Overcoming Adversity.”
It is ironic that Mrs. Elder, an African American nurse who was one of the first to integrate health care in Charlotte, North Carolina, grew up playing around waste from the asbestos plant next door to her home. It is amazing that she survived to be an octogenarian with a damaged lung while 2 of her siblings died from asbestos exposure by the time she was 5 years old.
During the early days of her nursing career, the federal government refused funding unless Charlotte’s segregated health care system became a thing of the past. Black nurses were consequently assigned to neighborhoods where the Ku Klux Klan lived. Mrs. Elder related at a local Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum ,
When I first went out, I was introduced to the caseload that the white nurse was carrying . . . and Confederate flags were hanging in the homes from the ceiling down, and the houses had no numbers on them.
Not having addresses for some patients, Mrs. Elder resorted to going to local pubs to get help in finding them. This proved a humiliating experience as she was addressed by the N word as drinkers at the pub wondered why she was in their neighborhood.
Even as she served patients at their homes, reactions were degrading. Some patients pulled out guns and knives to threaten bodily harm if Mrs. Elder ever hurt them. One patient asked that she do menial work such as the dishes and taking out the trash on her way out.
Black nurses were never paid equally despite their heroic efforts. Mrs. Elder recalls,
When I went to the health department I made a salary that was below the white nurses’ salary, although it was government and we were supposed to go in at the same price making the same money, and that never occurred…. It was told to us that they [whites] lived in different communities and it was much more expensive for them to live.
Yet, these occurrences never deterred Mrs. Elder from her life’s work.
Her accomplishments are many. She established Health Equity, Inc. in 2002 with health educator Beretha Allen to increase awareness of the diseases that affect our community, and to decrease youth and domestic violence.
Her interest in local history led her to work with 2 historical groups, the Greenville Community Historical Society where she grew up, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee, placing markers to note historical sites. Mrs. Elder has also been interviewed and her work documented by the Southern oral history project of UNC-Chapel Hill, and the Smithsonian Institution’s StoryCorps.
A 14 acre, child friendly park was named in her honor. In 2009 she was the recipient of the Maya Angelou/Elizabeth Ross Dargan Lifetime Achievement Award att he annual Maya Angelou “Women Who Lead” Luncheon in Charlotte.
While many in their 80s have slowed down, Mrs. Elder still has dreams and goals she is pursuing, including the establishment of a hands-on museum to showcase the contributions made by African Americans to Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Looking back at her life, love for her fellow human beings remains constant:
There were times that were challenging, but my belief is in God Almighty, and what was taught to me when we were growing up by my parents, the strongest people I knew. They taught us patience, perseverence, and that you can make it no matter what anybody says.
Just make sure that you are serving God. That’s my decree. All are His children and everybody needs to be loved and understood. You owe it to God Almighty to do His will.