Mary E. Merritt

Born: April 27, 1881

Died: January 8, 1953

Mary Eliza Meritt, born in Berea, Ky. in 1881, was the first registered nurse (R.N.) in Kentucky.

She grew up in Berea as the only child of Thomas and Kitty Merritt. She attended Berea College until 1903 when the Day Law was enacted forbidding two races to be taught in the same school.

To help with her tuition, she taught for a while in Manchester, Kentucky. "I didn't like teaching very much," she said. "I guess the nursing bug had bit me. Then, too, I taught at Manchester. I had to ride the train from Berea to London, and muleback 24 miles to Manchester."

In September 1904 she began classes at Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D. C., furthering her education in nursing. She graduated as a professional nurse in 1906.

She received her registered nurse status on October 30, 1913. When she returned to Kentucky as a private nurse, Kentucky had not yet passed the law establishing procedures for granting registered nurse status in Kentucky.

"I was nursing at the home of Cassius M. Clay at Richmond when [Mitchell Hospital administrators] wrote for me to come as superintendent. It was a big title, but the pay was only $25 a month and my keep."

She accepted the job at Mitchell Hospital in Leavenworth, Kansas, but only stayed there for two years. She returned to Berea in 1909 and worked as a housekeeper for Berea College's president, W. G. Frost. During a trip to Chatauqua, New York, Merritt met Lucy Belknap, a member of the board of Red Cross Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Favorably impressed by Merritt, Stone recommended her to the board of the hospital. Dr. E. D. Whedbee, the president of the board soon contacted Miss Merritt to invite her to the position of superintendent of Red Cross Hospital. She accepted the post September 30, 1911.

Red Cross Hospital, established in 1899, was not affiliated with the Red Cross. It was started by citizens recognizing a need for hospital care for the Black community and training for Black women who wanted professional nurse training. The hospital was established originally at 435 S. 6th Street with four beds and one nurse.

When Merritt began at the hospital it was located at 1436 South Shelby Street in Louisville, Kentucky. The hospital occupied two floors of a small building. Merritt toured the building with Miss Stone.

"After the first trip through the building, my heart sank. This couldn't be the place — the flooring wasn't covered, the kitchen stove was warped, the operating room was upstairs, everything was so discouraging. But I didn't want them to feel I didn't want to do something for my own people. I, then and there, decided that I would stay one year. I forgot when the year was up — and it soon stretched into 34 years."

Merritt retired from Red Cross Hospital in 1945 after helping the hospital grow from that disappointing, unfinished building to a medical facility for 100 patients.

President Woodrow Wilson granted her a certificate of merit for her service to the Red Cross during World War I; and, in 1949, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses gave her the Mary Mahoney Medal for Distinguished Service.

Mary Merritt passed away in 1953. In 1955, Central State Hospital in Lakeland, Kentucky named a building in honor of her as the "guiding spirit... and chief inspiration" of Red Cross Hospital.


"[Red Cross Sanatorium]." The Louisville Leader, March 25, 1922.
"Honored by Nation's Nurses." The Louisville Leader, September 3, 1949, 1.
"Miss Merritt to Be Honored at Hospital." Courier - Journal, June 26, 1955, 1, 27.
"Negro Nursing Group May Disband to Strengthen State Associations." Courier - Journal, August 23, 1949, 2, 1.
"Noted Negro Nurse Here, Miss Mary Merritt, Dead." Courier - Journal, January 9, 1953, 2, 10.
"Red Cross Hospital Carries out Old Custom with Open House." Courier - Journal, February 13, 1940, 2, 1.
Berry, Benjamin D., Jr. "Plymouth Settlement House and the Development of Black Louisville: 1900-1930." Case Western Reserve University, 1977.
Bond, T. M. "Shelby Street Red Cross Hospital." Courier - Journal, April 26, 1932, 6.
Martin, Fletcher. "National Negro Nurses' Association Will Present Award to Louisvillian." Courier - Journal, August 14, 1949, 3, 7.