A nurse who cared // Nurse Clara Frye 1872-1936

Published Mar. 10, 1997|Updated Jul. 6, 2006

Sometimes one small act of courage can make history and change an entire community.

That's certainly the story of Tampa's Clara Frye, a determined nurse at the turn of the century who decided that people of all races needed health care.

In those days, African-American children and their families were not allowed to go to local hospitals because a large part of society then believed that black people did not deserve the same treatment as white people. There used to be many laws segregating the races, keeping blacks and whites apart.

Long before civil rights leaders worked to integrate schools and public buildings, activists were doing what they could to help African-Americans in their own communities.

The goal of equal health care was not possible in 1908, but Frye decided to do her part by nursing residents in her own home.

As the story goes, a doctor sent a sick man to Frye for help in 1908. She was so worried that she gave up her own bed to care for the man, while she slept on a blanket on the floor.

That small _ but significant _ act led her to start nursing even more people in her home on Lamar Street. Deeply religious, Frye was also determined. As an African-American woman, becoming a trained nurse in an Alabama hospital in the late 1800s was not easy _ nor was running her little health clinic. But she didn't give up!

She worked to help poor residents and lobbied City Hall for better conditions.

In 1923, so many people needed help that Frye opened a small hospital down the street from her house. Twenty years after Frye took in her first patient, the city bought the hospital, taking over operation and with Frye still working.

In 1936, Clara Frye died at age 64. In the cemetery, she is remembered only by a small, homemade concrete marker at her grave. In the city, her life was soon honored in a more visible way. In 1937, Tampa built the Clara Frye Memorial Hospital on Riverside Boulevard by the Hillsborough River for black residents. In 1948, Tampa General Hospital started treating African-Americans but usually transferred them to the Clara Frye hospital for long-term treatment. Only in the 1960s was health care integrated. As the need dwindled so did Frye's namesake hospital. In 1967, the building was closed because of inadequate and unsanitary conditions.

To many, the idea and necessity of an "all black" hospital is a sad story in history, but without Frye's help many people would have not received treatment.

Clara Frye is still honored in Tampa for her efforts to help the poor and sick. In 1991, the West Pavilion of Tampa General Hospital was named in her honor _ a bronze plaque in the front hall remembers the dedicated nurse who did what she could no matter what the conditions.

Your challenge!

Look around your city or neighborhood for plaques that honor the contributions of local people _ then research their stories in the library. It may not be that easy. Unlike presidents or mayors, who are often written about, local activists may never have their stories told. Clara Frye's story is told in only one history book! But like a good scavenger hunt, you'll find a treasure when you discover the facts about history.