Lola Campbell persisted to integrate Holston Valley Nurse training corps

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) — For Leola “Lola” Campbell, becoming a nurse was a lifelong dream and calling.

“Ever since I was old enough to know what a nurse was, that was what I wanted to be,” Campbell told News Channel 11. “That’s about the only way I can explain it. I just wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to care for people.”

But as a Black woman in the 1950s, it was a dream that wouldn’t come easily.

“When I finished 11th grade, I started looking into places to go, but everything everywhere was segregated,” said Campbell.

Like public schools across the region, Kingsport’s nurse training school at Holston Valley Community Hospital was segregated at the time. Still, it had a great reputation, and Campbell set her sights on admission.

She called and visited the office relentlessly but never received an application. Campbell said administrators told her they would run a segregated class if she could find at least ten other black students to enroll.

“That wasn’t possible,” said Campbell. “The Black population here is so small and most of the women worked.”

Making the impossible possible

Regardless, Campbell was determined to meet her goal.

“I just kept going, I kept calling,” Campbell said. “I knew that I wanted to be a nurse, and I knew that Holston Valley had the best training program in the Tri-Cities.”

Kingsport City Schools announced its plan to begin integrating, grade by grade in 1960.

“If schools integrated, why wouldn’t the nursing program be integrated?” Campbell said.

Finally, the administrators relented. The school called her on a Friday to tell her the spring session would start Monday, but that she wouldn’t be able to gather the paperwork needed in time and could start in the fall.

Campbell never received an application.

“I knew what all we had to have, so I got busy,” Campbell said. “With the help of God, my aptitude tests and all the things I had to have, I was done by Friday afternoon.”

“So I walked in, surprisingly, Monday morning.”

Pushing past prejudice

Clearing the hurdles to admission was only the beginning for Campbell, who integrated the nurse training program at Holston Valley Medical Center along with one other Black student.

Campbell trained hard for 13 months, all the while facing patients who sometimes declined to receive care from a woman of color.

“You didn’t know from one day to another in the hospital what somebody was going to ask you or what somebody was going to say,” Campbell said. “You never know what questions [you’ll] face so you had to learn to smile and say, ‘I’m so-and-so and this and I’m here and I’m going to take care of you today if you want me to.'”

Campbell credits many of her early supervisors for looking out for her through training and into the early years of her nursing career.

For her first hospital placement, Campbell was assigned the most notoriously difficult floor.

“Their nurse was a retired Army lieutenant, and she ran a tight ship,” Campbell said.

But that nurse ended up being one of Campbell’s “angels,” and offered her her first hospital job.

Campbell graduated in March 1961, becoming the first Black nurse trained at Holston Valley Medical Center, where she spent the entirety of her 27-year career.

Opening doors

The determination that compelled Campbell to fight segregation kept her working. She earned a scholarship to become a Registered Nurse and kept training on the latest equipment as a surgical nurse for nearly three decades.

Leola “Lola” Campbell, seated second from left, celebrating her 90th birthday in October.
Leola “Lola” Campbell, seated second from left, celebrating her 90th birthday in October.

Sixty years later, Campbell said there was a moment from the final weeks of her 13-month training period that stood out to her. Her cohort was back in the classroom studying for state boards, with a view of the nursing office.

Through the window, Campbell saw a young Black woman she knew walk into the office.

“Connie walked out with an application and everything she needed, and it took me all those years,” said Cambell. “That was the moment I knew that God had really made all this possible.”

“For her to walk in and get the application and everything. The doors were open. Finally, the doors were open.”

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