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A man sits in an office with many books
Ernest J. Grant being interviewed by Carmen Vaughn-Hewitt for the Occupational Folklife Project.

New Occupational Folklife Project Documents African American Nurses and the Chi Eta Phi Sorority

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On April 12th, the American Folklife Center posted another Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) collection to the Library’s website. The collection, which you can find at this link, features 15 in-depth interviews documenting the careers and work culture of African American nurses who are members of the Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Incorporated, a renowned historically Black national professional nursing organization founded in 1932. (We are excited to note this was the 50th OFP to be processed and made available to the public – but more on that in an upcoming blog.)

To mark the occasion, AFC staff folklorist Nancy Groce interviewed the collection’s creator, Carmen Vaughn-Hewitt, a nurse, oral historian, and Chi Eta Phi member who was awarded a 2021 Archie Green Fellowship from AFC for this research project.

A woman in a T Shirt that says Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Incorporated: Service for Humanity.
Carmen Vaughn-Hewitt conducted an important set of interviews for the Occupational Folklife Project. Find them all here.

NANCY GROCE: First, congratulations on your excellent fieldwork that resulted in the just released African American Nurses: The Chi Eta Phi Sorority occupational folklife collection. I understand that you’re trained as both a nurse and an oral historian. Would you tell us a little about your career?

CARMEN VAUGHN-HEWITT: Thanks! My career in nursing spans for over 40 years. I began as a Licensed Practical Nurse and I continued my nursing education by obtaining an Associate Degree of Applied Science in Nursing, and then the Bachelor of Science in Nursing. (I also have advanced degrees in theology, including a Doctor of Ministry.)

I have a wide variety of nursing experience. I’ve worked in trauma intensive care, surgical intensive care, medical intensive care, physical rehabilitation, psych, research, occupational health, school health, geriatrics, and case management.

Most of my nursing experience has been in urban areas. As part of the nursing process, we are taught to obtain oral histories from the client/patient. This experience has enabled me to be an effective oral historian.

NANCY GROCE: Listening to your interviews, I was impressed with the history and impact of Chi Eta Phi. Can you give us a brief history of the sorority and why it has been so important – both for you and for the field.

CARMEN VAUGHN-HEWITT: Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Incorporated was founded in 1932 at Freedmen’s Hospital (now the Howard University Hospital) in Washington, DC. It was established because professional registered nurses of African American descent were denied membership to national professional nurse organizations. There were also concerns about restrictions faced by well-trained Black nurses in segregated facilities and hospitals, who were often forced to work menial positions with little or no chance for advancement.

Photos of Ailene Carrington Ewell and the Founding Jewels of Chi Eta Phi Sorority. Find the archival scan here.

Chi Eta Phi was founded by Registered Nurse (RN) Ailene Carrington Ewell (1913-1997) with the assistance of eleven other Black registered nurses, collectively known in the Sorority as the “Jewels,” with the goals of elevating the practice of nursing, increasing interest in the field of nursing, addressing health disparities and challenges of underserved populations, and identifying and developing a core of successful nurse leaders.

NANCY GROCE: I know that Chi Eta Phi was started as a sorority, but who are its members today

CARMEN VAUGHN-HEWITT: Today’s Chi Eta Phi Sorority is a multicultural professional nursing organization open to all. The first male nurse joined in 1977. There are Chi Eta Phi members throughout the United States and US Virgin Islands. The Sorority is divided into five regions mainland United States.

NANCY GROCE: Tell us a bit about conducting your Archie Green Project. How did you decide who to interview?

CARMEN VAUGHN-HEWITT: In the field of nursing, we come from a wide range of educational backgrounds and are employed in are wide variety of jobs. I thought this project would be a great opportunity to showcase this diversity. My interviewees included nurses working in different specialties throughout the health field. The interviewees chosen included executive board members of Chi Eta Phi Sorority, nurse educators, male nurses, and early career nurses. The interviewees spanned each of the Sorority’s five geographic regions.

NANCY GROCE: What surprised or impressed you about the people you interviewed?

A woman speaking
Dr. Tracie Lavette Augusta being interviewed by Carmen Vaughn-Hewitt for the Occupational Folklife Project. Find her interview and photos here.

CARMEN VAUGHN-HEWITT: I’m not sure I was surprised by anything, but I was impressed by how many members were willing to take part in this oral history project. I was pleasantly surprised by how many of the nurse educators who participated in the project had earned doctorate degrees.

Conducting the interviews gave me an enormous amount of insight into and pride for my profession and for my sorority. I am confident that Chi Eta Phi Sorority’s motto “Service for Humanity” is being successfully implemented in tangible ways through our projects and membership. I am delighted that the field of nursing will continue to be enriched by the nurse educators and leaders nurtured and supported by Chi Eta Phi.


African American Nurses: The Chi Eta Phi Sorority Collection is at this link.

Find all of Carmen’s interviews at this link.

Chi Eta Phi Sorority can be found at this link.


Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the introduction to this valuable collection and its creator! One typo in the blog: the Howard University Hospital was originally named the Freedmans Hospital. In its early days, it was operated by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau.

    • Thanks for catching that, Carl!

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