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 rare and terrifying diseases that told stories of people who went to bed whole and woke up broken, stories that made me believe my every sneeze, pain, and headache meant death was imminent. My toe hurt, I had gout. A mosquito bite was the beginning of West Nile, and swollen glands meant the plague. 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.”
A combination of boredom and curiosity 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 SV.
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 when there was a nursing shortage in the 1920’s. That line sent me down the google rabbit hole for three days, and when it produced nothing, I set out to find her.