Years ago, I read an article that suggested New Yorkers never venture more than 4 -6 blocks from their neighborhood. And if they do, it has to be for a good reason—work, visiting someone, dinner, or shopping. Initially, I thought this was nonsense, but then I began thinking about it and asking my friends, and I realized it was indeed true. New Yorkers, for all their flair and independence, adventure and tolerance, are at heart, creatures of habit: We like our little corners of the world.
My little corner of the world, Astoria, lies 25 miles from Staten Island, and before 2015, I had been to Staten Island exactly twice. I knew nothing about the Island, except what was headlined in the papers: the 9/11 recovery site, Fresh Kills, The tugboat graveyard, and Willowbrook. .
That all changed in August 2015, when I discovered the story of the Black Angels.
At the time, I was working as a Developmental Editor in the Biomedical Sciences, a job where I spent my days poring over manuscripts of diseases, many that had no cure. While editing a book on Orphan Lung diseases—lung diseases so rare, they affect one in millions—I read this line:
“The cure for TB was found at Sea View Hospital in Staten island.”
Curiosity and a love of New York history made me stop what I was doing and google: Staten Island +TB + Cure. And there it was, the story of the cure. But, tucked alongside the story was another one that talked about a nurse, Ms. Virginia Allen, who had moved into the newly renovated nurses residence at Sea View.
The article mentioned that she was part of a group of African-American nurses called the Black Angles, who came to work at Sea View in the 1920’s, when white nurses began quitting, setting off a nursing shortage. That line sent me down the google rabbit hole for three days. When it produced nothing, I set out to find her at the Staten Island Museum where she was scheduled to speak.