No person's life can be adequately captured in a list of achievements, but in the case of Ella Mae Ferneil it's a good place to start. Her curriculum vitae is filled with firsts that convey a sense of the remarkable and determined woman who was the first African American registered nurse, public health nurse, visiting nurse, and school nurse in the State of California. Ella Ferneil's nursing career in the West was launched at Children's Hospital Oakland, and we are proud to honor her.
In the shadow of World War II, the West Coast held promise for many Americans seeking employment opportunities. But when Ella Ferneil and her family moved to the Bay Area in the early 1940s, those opportunities were not open to all. Bay Area neighborhoods and transportation were segregated. No African American physicians or pharmacists worked in white neighborhoods, and restaurants, such as the fabled Trader Vick's, would not serve black customers.
Mrs. Ferneil was a trained, experienced nurse with an established career in Texas, but because black colleges were not accredited her degree from Dillard University Flint Goodrich Hospital wasn't worth much outside of a segregated hospital. So Mrs. Ferneil returned to school, working as a maid at UC's International House while she earned her second bachelor's degree through a joint program by the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University.
"Once she got her second degree, she started knocking on doors," says John Taylor, her son. "And the door at Children's Hospital Oakland was the first one to open."
Children's leadership was hesitant about hiring her as a nurse, mentioning that an elevator operator position was available. But a surgeon at Children's, Harry Peter, MD, insisted that Mrs. Ferneil be hired as a scrub nurse in the operating room. Soon after she became a permanent registered nurse at the hospital, and was later promoted to nurse manager of the outpatient clinic.
"It is a tribute to the hospital," John says. "Children's deserves credit for allowing black nurses to work here before any other hospital in the Bay Area would."
Mrs. Ferneil went on to become a visiting nurse in San Francisco and in Oakland – the first African American to hold the position. After returning to UC Berkeley to earn her master's degree in public health, she became the Oakland Unified School District's first African American school public health nurse. Mrs. Ferneil died in 1966.
John, who was 7 years old when the family moved to the Bay Area, says his mother sheltered the family and did not talk about her experiences here or in her home state of Louisiana. Yet Mrs. Ferneil's experiences did provide the context for her son's career. John Taylor was the first Bay Area African American freedom rider to go to Mississippi in the struggle to integrate interstate travel in the South. John Taylor is also the founder of a Contra Costa County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. All of Mrs. Ferneil's grandsons are college graduates. One of them, Eric Taylor, is the youngest African American superior court judge in California.