On October 16, 1932, at a time when African American nurses were either barred from membership in state and national nursing professional associations or had only limited opportunities to participate in these organizations, a visionary nursing leader named Aliene Carrington Ewell, BA, RN, with the assistance of 11 other founding members, established Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Inc., a national sorority for black professional nurses.
Today Chi Eta Phi is a professional association for registered professional nurses and student nurses–both male and female–representing many cultures and diverse ethnic backgrounds. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it has over 8,000 members, with more than 90 graduate chapters (for nurses who are already RNs) and 50 undergraduate (student) chapters located across the United States and in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.
This October, Chi Eta Phi is celebrating its 75th anniversary. A two-day commemorative event will be held October 15-16 in Washington and will be highlighted by the unveiling of a wax figure in the likeness of Aliene Ewell. After the celebration, the figure will be installed in The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, which is dedicated solely to the study and preservation of African American history.
Born in Norfolk, Va., Ewell graduated from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing, Washington, D.C., in 1922. She continued to pursue higher education with great vigor, attending several prestigious institutes. She received a baccalaureate degree from the District of Columbia Teacher’s College and also studied at the Catholic University of America and at Columbia University in New York City.
Ewell began her career as a staff nurse for the Instructive Visiting Nurses Association and the District of Columbia Public Health Department. In 1957 she became the executive director of the Ionia R. Whipper Home, a maternity home for black unwed mothers, and worked there for 10 years until her retirement in 1967. She died on January 23, 1997.
These facts depict the professional life of an extraordinary woman who was a leader among minority nurses. Lillian Stokes, PhD, RN, FAAN, the current president of Chi Eta Phi, met Ewell several times in the late 1970s. “She was a dynamic leader, a lady, very elegant. Her [exuberant leadership radiated from her] and her presence made such a big difference,” says Stokes, who was elected to her second term as Supreme Basileus in July.
The 12 original sorors “were visionaries,” she continues. “They were leaders. They were professionals. They were committed to service. They saw a need for the organization because back in 1932 minority nurses could not belong to the majority organizations. They saw the need for an organization [that would provide opportunities for] African American nurses to come together and network, share their talents, develop leadership skills, provide service and connect with each other.”
“These women were looking for someplace where professional nurses of color could get together as a group to look at the issues that were affecting health and [how] nurses could deal with [those issues],” says Chi Eta Phi first vice president Mildred D. Fennal, PhD, RN, CCRN. “[The sorority] evolved from that.”
“Service for Humanity”
Membership in Chi Eta Phi is by invitation and is both active and honorary.
“If someone expresses interest in [joining] the sorority, what we try to do is make them understand that we are a professional service organization, not a social organization,” says Stokes, who has been a member of Chi Eta Phi for over four decades. “[That way,] if they decide to join they are not disappointed. We are about working and serving and those are the things that are stressed.
“Nurses want to be a part of an organization that is professional,” she adds. “They want to help make a difference in their communities. One of the other areas we [emphasize very strongly] is fellowship. It is a way of networking and interacting with other nurses who [share the same beliefs and goals]: to try to provide service to the community.”
Chi Eta Phi Sorority as it exists today has five stated purposes:
- To encourage continuing education among members of the nursing profession.
- To have a continuous recruitment program for nursing and the health professions.
- To stimulate a close and friendly relationship among the members.
- To develop working relationships with other professional groups for the improvement and delivery of health care services.
- To constantly identify a corps of nursing leaders within the membership who will function as agents of social change on the national, regional and local level.
The sorority’s motto, “Service for Humanity,” is reflected in a wide range of programs focusing on health promotion and disease prevention, leadership development, mentoring, international development, recruitment and retention of minorities into nursing, and scholarships for nursing students. The organization also publishes the Journal of Chi Eta Phi Sorority (JOCEPS), a scholarly nursing journal published annually.
“The greatest strength [of the sorority] is the services provided to the community throughout the country and abroad,” Fennal says. “Our signature program is hypertension [awareness and prevention].”
Chi Eta Phi has partnered with the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health to offer hypertension screening programs that are specifically targeted to the needs of communities of color. Compared with other racial/ethnic groups, African Americans have the nation’s highest morbidity and mortality rates from heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. High blood pressure is a precursor to these conditions.
“Over the years, our major programs have evolved,” says Stokes, who is the director of the Indiana University School of Nursing (IUSON) Diversity and Enrichment Program. “I believe disease prevention and health promotion were probably the early ones, and we [continue to] do health screening and health education. We are working very hard to make an impact in the community and we try to capitalize on the talents in this organization to help increase individual and community awareness about health issues.
“One of the things we would like to do is facilitate a decrease in health disparities. I think we are probably doing that [already]. Hypertension is one of the major ones.” The sorority also has prevention programs that focus on cancer, glaucoma and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
In these areas, the health disparity gaps between the majority and minority populations are wide. “That is the reason we selected these programs,” says Stokes. “But we don’t discriminate. We will do programs for any [population], but our focus is underserved populations.”
Fennal, who is a professor at Florida A&M University School of Nursing, has been a member of Chi Eta Phi for some 17 years and has taken full advantage of the leadership opportunities the sorority offers.
“It has been a wonderful experience for me. It has given me the opportunity to grow, particularly as a leader,” she says. “When you’re in a job like academia, sometimes you have to stay forever before you get a chance to [move into] a leadership position. So as a nurse you may not have an opportunity to play a leadership role in your job, but if you are [involved with a professional organization like Chi Eta Phi], you can have a leadership position there that will teach you the same things that [a leadership] job would teach. It also gives you the chance to be a national leader where you [have a constituency of] 8,000 people, which is great.”
Some of the sorority’s newer programs are designed to assist the members in developing effective leadership skills. The leadership development programs include member development, officer development, the Leadership Fellows Program and the professional development program.
“We are working very hard to develop new leaders, not only to serve Chi Eta Phi but also to serve other organizations and to serve in the community,” says Stokes. “About three years ago we developed [the Leadership Fellows Program] to offer opportunities for members who are interested in holding national leadership positions or holding positions on a regional level. [The program gives them the opportunity to] work with a mentor for a year to develop in whatever area they are interested in.”
The program also provides funds that enable Fellows to travel, attend conferences and meet with their mentors.
Support for Students
Chi Eta Phi Sorority awards $50,000 annually in nursing scholarships, including the national Aliene Carrington Ewell Scholarship for undergraduate students and the Mabel Keaton Staupers National Scholarship Award, for students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees. Other scholarships are available at the regional and local levels.
“One of the main [barriers to] education for minority students in nursing is [lack of] money,” Stokes says. “We are [especially] pleased that we can be part of supporting students while they are getting their undergraduate degrees.”
The sorority supports student nurses in every aspect of their lives, says Shakyra Stanfield, BSN, who recently graduated from Howard University and is now working at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
“With school being the top priority when you are [Chi Eta Phi members] at the undergraduate level, [the RNs in the sorority provide assistance to] make sure we pass all our classes,” she explains. “We get a lot of support from our graduate chapter, which is like our parent chapter. They provide a lot of information and financial resources. If we need to take a class to help us prepare for the NCLEX®, they might fund us in those types of situations. When we were having some problems in one of our classes, members who had graduated from our [student] chapter came back and gave us lessons on how to study, on test-taking skills and how to prepare for exams.”
Stanfield joined Chi Eta Phi at a time when she had just changed her major to nursing. “One of the members of the organization came to our class and gave us information about the sorority,” she recalls. “Joining a nursing organization while in nursing school seemed like it would be a good idea.”
It turned out to be a wise move for this dynamic young leader, who currently holds the position of third vice president on the sorority’s national Board of Directors. Stanfield has forged strong friendships with other sorority members and has stayed in touch with other former student members as they have gone out into the professional world and become nurses.
Chi Eta Phi’s mission of providing community service is clearly evident at the student level as well. “Because we are a nursing sorority, we–of course–focus a lot on health. [Student members] go out into the community and do a lot of screening for chronic diseases or [other health problems],” Stanfield says. “Our chapter has also helped different kinds of populations at various events. We have gone to a senior service agency and delivered food for Thanksgiving. We also did some beautification projects at a local elementary school. We do many things in the community for the overall improvement of the general population.”
Fennal encourages undergraduate students to get involved in Chi Eta Phi because it gives them the opportunity to start their professional network while they are still in college.
“The sorority gives them access to all of these [minority nursing leaders] who have done all the contributing before them,” she says. “As a student, that immediately puts you in touch with people who have done work in nursing across the country. It is an excellent professional development opportunity for these young women, mostly, but also young men, to be mentored by people who have been in nursing for a while.
“We have a great undergraduate chapter here at Florida A&M,” Fennal adds.
Keeping the History Alive
Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN, president of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (NCEMNA), is an honorary member of the sorority. She sees the support network offered by organizations like Chi Eta Phi as a very positive opportunity for nurses of color.
“A support system is very much a main thing one gets out of this type of organization–the chance to meet colleagues with the same basic interests,” she says. “Since 90% of nurses are not nurses of color, [minority nurses] can be very isolated. This support system is very important to help you grow as an individual, develop and build [professional] relationships and have the opportunity to mentor [or be mentored by] other people who are doing something to create a lifeline for [minority] individuals in nursing.
“[Today] the problems of segregation, discrimination and racism [still] exist,” Williams continues. “When [nurses of color] come together, you have more opportunities to shape your environments, shape policy and do some things to strengthen your position.”
Stokes agrees with that assessment. “We are a professional organization,” she stresses. “We bring a group of nurses and student nurses together who are dedicated to service, and with that commitment we are able to implement our national programs that have some impact in communities throughout the country.”
The 12 founding members of Chi Eta Phi who made history 75 years ago are all deceased, but they are far from forgotten. “Throughout the intake process [for student members], we learned [the founders’] names and we know where they [were] from and when [the sorority] was founded,” says Stanfield. “We cherish our founders. Their families still come to our events and are a part of the organization. [The history] is not lost at all.”
Jewels in the Crown: Chi Eta Phi’s Founding Sisters
Along with Aliene Carrington Ewell, 11 other courageous and visionary African American nurses helped found Chi Eta Phi Sorority in 1932. Like Ewell, they were all graduates of Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing, a diploma program for black nurses in Washington, D.C. The sorority refers to the founding sorors as its “Jewels.”
Soror Clara E. Beverly was the first black nurse to receive a BSN degree from the Catholic University of America (in 1944). She went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago. Returning to Washington, she worked at Freedman’s Hospital as a supervisor/instructor and then became director of nursing at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Beverly also served in the Army Nurse Corps and the U.S. Public Health Service School of Practical Nursing in Fort Defiance, Arizona. As the director of nursing education for the Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts School of Nursing in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa, she was decorated by William V.S. Tubman, president of Liberia, as Knight Official of the Order of African Redemption. She died in 1978.
Soror Lillian M. Boswell did postgraduate work at Columbia University in New York City, the Catholic University of America and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. She was a staff nurse and operating room supervisor at Freedmen’s Hospital, where she received many awards for exemplary performance of duties. Boswell was held in high regard by the hospital’s administrators, surgeons and nurses for her expertise in operating room administration and for the instruction and guidance she gave to the medical and nursing staffs. She served as treasurer of Chi Eta Phi’s charter chapter, Alpha, from 1932 until her retirement in 1958. She died in 1986.
Soror Gladys Louise Catchings pursued postgraduate studies at the Catholic University of America, the District of Columbia Teacher’s College and New York University in New York City. She worked in private duty, hospital, geriatric and school nursing. After retiring, Catchings divided her time between Chicago and her birthplace, Georgetown, Georgia. She passed away in 1992.
Soror Bessie Foster Cephas worked in school nursing in Virginia and in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. On May 1, 1949, she organized the sorority’s Kappa Chapter in Pittsburgh. Soror Cephas died in 2000.
Soror Henrietta Smith Chisholm received her BSN degree from the Catholic University of America and worked in public health nursing. She held many national and local leadership positions in Chi Eta Phi, including national Tamiochus, Headquarters Trustee and Alpha Chapter Basileus, Anti-Basileus and Tamiochus. She died in 2006.
Soror Susan Elizabeth Freeman engaged in postgraduate studies at Columbia University, Howard University and the Catholic University of America. She worked at Freedmen’s Hospital in a variety of positions. During World War II, Freeman joined the Army Nurse Corps, serving as chief nurse at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and chief nurse of the 25th Station Hospital in Liberia, where she commanded the first unit of black nurses to serve overseas. She was the first black Army nurse to be promoted to the rank of captain and she received many commendations, including a citation as Knight Official of the Order of African Redemption from the Liberian government. In 1945, she was honored with the Mary Mahoney Award from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. She passed away in 1979.
Soror Ruth Turner Garrett graduated from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1922. After her death in 1943, the sorority’s Alpha Chapter established the Ruth Garrett Memorial Fund in her name to recognize her work in ensuring that sorors who were ill received appropriate nursing intervention and care. This fund is still used today to pay for nursing services for ailing Chi Eta Phi members.
Soror Olivia Larkins Howard graduated from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1930 and embarked on a career in public health nursing. She was an original signee of the Articles of Incorporation for Chi Eta Phi Sorority on February 5, 1943. Soror Howard died in 1963.
Soror Mildred Wood Lucas did her postgraduate studies at Howard University, the Catholic University of America and the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Her career encompassed hospital nursing, public health, nursing education and school nursing. She served as a special services nurse for the American Red Cross in Louisville, Kentucky during the Great Ohio River Flood of 1937. In Chi Eta Phi, Lucas held the position of Grammateus in 1932 and served as national Tamias from 1945-1951. She was instrumental in stimulating interest in the sorority in Baltimore, where the Gamma Chapter was organized, and in her hometown of Hartford, Conn., where the Chi Chapter was established. She died in 1999.
Soror Clara Belle Royster pursued postgraduate studies at Howard University, the Catholic University of America and Columbia University. She was employed by Freedmen’s Hospital until she retired, serving in obstetrics and administration. She passed away in 1995.
Soror Katherine Chandler Turner received her bachelor’s degree in nursing education from Columbia University, then went on to do graduate studies at Wayne State University in Detroit and at Columbia University. Her professional career was in public health nursing, and she was the first black nursing supervisor in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Turner served Chi Eta Phi as national Headquarters Trustee from 1976-1978. She was also active in professional and civic organizations, including the National Organization for Public Health and the American Red Cross. She died in 1991.