"The Black Angels" | Reviewed by Susan Ferguson
“The Black Angels,” by Maria Smilios, is a historical fiction novel that focuses on Southern Black nurses who were recruited to work at the Sea View Hospital on Staten Island spanning the 20 years from the Great Depression through World War II. It is also a story of the race to find a cure for tuberculosis.
Sea View Hospital was the largest municipal hospital in New York City. It sat on an isolated 400-foot hill in a remote borough of Staten Island. In the pre-antibiotic days of 1929, and with the arrival of tuberculosis, white nurses began quitting in fear of the deadly disease.
City officials had a crisis on their hands; the hospitals were filling up and the nurses were quitting. City officials began recruiting southern Black nurses offering them promises of good pay, a chance to further their education, career opportunities and a way to escape the Jim Crow restrictions of the South.
Readers meet Edna Sutton a Black nurse from Savannah, Georgia who jumps at this opportunity. She has a nursing degree and is frustrated with the career limitations the South offers. We learn about Edna and the other Black nurses who spent the next 20 years of their lives risking their own health to care for the poorest patients under the most deplorable conditions.
This novel also follows the Black Angels battle to deal with the injustices they endure outside of the hospital. The women struggled to buy homes, get promotions and attend certain universities because they were Black. We also learn about several of the doctors who were committed to finding a cure for TB, which was killing 1 in 7 patients.
While the “The Black Angels” is fiction, the book is fact-based and well researched. The story frequently switches back and forth from the nurses’ stories to the doctors and their efforts in well woven, easy transitions. This novel brings to light the heroic efforts of nurses who risked their lives and played a major role in desegregating the New York City hospital system. It is a tribute to these overlooked women and well worth reading.