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Opening doors for others

Verdelle Bellamy quietly broke the color barrier at Emory and in Georgia

By Pam Auchmutey

Story Photo

2005 Emory Medalists Charles Haynes and Verdelle Bellamy. Photography by Jon Rou

Many a nurse turned out to honor Verdelle Bellamy 63MN following her death on April 22 at age 88. The nurses represented a mix of institutions, including Grady Memorial Hospital, the Atlanta VA Medical Center (VAMC), the Georgia Nurses Association, the Georgia Board of Nursing, and Tuskegee and Emory universities. All were united in their respect and admiration for Bellamy as a pioneer in nursing education and practice.

"Verdelle was one of the most influential nurses to graduate from Emory," said Angela Amar PhD RN FAAN, assistant dean for BSN education at the School of Nursing, during a service for Bellamy. "She paved the way for thousands of African American nurses in Georgia and beyond. She broke down barriers at every organization she touched."

Bellamy was working as a nursing instructor at Grady in 1962 when Emory nursing dean Ada Fort tapped her and Allie Saxon 63MN to enroll as the first black students at the university—a step that required Emory to argue its case for desegregation before the Georgia Supreme Court.

Both students quietly began their studies, with little fanfare and strong support from nursing school leaders and students, in January 1963. The atmosphere was quite different that year in Bellamy’s native Birmingham, Alabama, where Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed and a bomb at a black church killed four young girls. When the press tried to interview Bellamy about enrolling at Emory, she refused. "I didn’t want to be any different from any other student," Bellamy recalled years later upon receiving the Emory Medal, the highest university honor for alumni, in 2005.

By then, Bellamy had retired from the Atlanta VAMC, where she rose through the ranks to become a nationally recognized nursing leader in veteran care. She served as associate chief of nursing services for geriatrics—the first administrative position held there by an African American—and then chief of long-term care nursing. Her leadership led to improvements in patient care, including the design and creation of a state-of-the-art VA nursing home. 

Bellamy forged paths in other ways. In 1974, she became the first African American appointed to the Georgia Board of Nursing by then-governor Jimmy Carter. The U.S. House of Representatives honored her in 1980, and the NAACP presented her with its Freedom Hall Award in 1986. She was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing in 1993. Emory honored her again in 2011 by naming her one of its makers of history during its 175th anniversary.

Emma Jean Powell, a retired Atlanta VAMC nurse, first met Bellamy years ago at Grady Hospital. "She was always behind me lighting a fire, saying ‘you can do more,’ " said Powell. "She opened many doors of possibilities and not just for nurses. She persevered to make sure those doors did not close behind us."

Related Resources

"Verdelle Bellamy remembered as national nursing leader and Emory pioneer" (5/1/2015)

Emory History Makers: Verdelle Bellamy

Emory Nursing: Alumni

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