Oral Histories from the Archives: Donna Allen Harris

School of Nursing, class of 1971In honor of Black History Month, our blog this week features Donna Allen Harris, the first African American woman to graduate from Duke’s School of Nursing in 1971.

On December 4, 2008, Jessica Roseberry conducted an oral history interview with Harris at the Medical Center Archive. During the interview, Harris recalls the isolation she felt while helping integrate the high school in Elizabeth City. Coming to Duke, she worried about the continuation of that isolation but found a close group of friends among the nursing students. Harris contends, “It was that this social aspect of it was so much different from high school and that was my solace.”

Donna Allen Harris was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Due to her father’s enlistment in the Navy, the family frequently moved, including three years spent in France. The family moved back to Elizabeth City when Harris was twelve. Harris was part of a group of students that integrated Elizabeth City Public Schools around 1967 and she described how isolating the experience initially was. Entering Duke University’s School of Nursing in 1967, Harris knew she would be the first African American student in the School of Nursing. After graduating from Duke, Harris joined her husband, who was in the military, in Mississippi. Being a Duke School of Nursing alumna helped Harris get a job at a hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi. Once at the hospital, “it was still me having to prove myself and that my race could do it because there were no other black RNs there, just me.”

Eventually, Harris decided that working as a hospital nurse did not fulfill her and she wanted more time to spend with her growing family. She moved into the public health field and once there, she recalled, “it was like I was watered. It was like, ‘Ah, this is where I need to be.” The public health field attracted Harris because “it was more people oriented than it was the task oriented.” After leaving the public health field, Harris worked first as an office nurse then in a nursing home before becoming a clinical instructor at North Carolina Central. Following this, she became a nurse in a high school because it was a people oriented job. Eventually, she went into nursing research, which is how she came back to work at Duke in 2006.

Looking back at all of her varied work experiences, Harris was amazed at how much she has done and partially attributes some of that to the Duke name on her diploma, which helped her be “able to get that variety and then getting in there and then doing the job [and] doing the job well.” Being recognized at a Tea with Trailblazers and doing the oral history with Roseberry helped Harris realize “that it [graduating from the School of Nursing] was a significant accomplishment, and it did open the doors for a lot of others who have accomplished a lot of things…I just kind of accepted it because we did it. But it really is something to be proud of.”

To hear more about Ms. Harris’ experiences in her own words, please see the “Women in Duke Medicine” online oral history exhibit or contact the Archives. To discover more archival resources related to African Americans at Duke Medicine, visit our subject guide.

This blog post was contributed by Archives Intern Kahlee Leingang.