By Ede Rothaus
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of my living on Morton Street. So, I decided to try to get to know some of the people I have passed on the block or while climbing the stairs in my building. Recently, I sat down for the first time with my neighbor, Phyllis Jenkins, in a shady corner of St. Luke’s Garden and we started to chat.
Born in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, Phyllis attended Evander Childs High School. Due to a family crisis, she was forced to leave home and lived with, and then married, a close friend with whom she had two children. The family initially lived in Flushing and then moved back to the Bronx. 1949 found her divorced at age 19, working full-time as a nurse’s aide and living in the “projects” of Upper Manhattan.
Recognized for her abilities by a senior nurse, she was encouraged “not to waste her time as an aide” and to go for training to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). While working at Wyckoff Heights Hospital, another nurse told her that “she was wasting her time” being an LPN, and that she should train to become a Registered Nurse (RN).
During the following three years, while studying and doing her rotations to become an RN, she worked at the LIU Brooklyn Campus, Elmhurst Hospital, Willowbrook, and Wards Island. It was during her last rotation at Wards Island (Manhattan State Hospital) that she knew she wanted to work in psychiatry.
In 1960, with her children fully grown, Phyllis found an apartment on Morton Street. Living in the Village, she “felt good and validated.”
In 1970, a casual glance at an advertisement in the New York Times—for an NYU Graduate School-sponsored group to study African culture in Ghana—would change her life. She applied and won a scholarship that paid for half of the $1,500 tuition. After nine weeks of studying at the University of Ghana at Accra and Kumasi, she knew she wanted to work in Africa.
Upon returning to New York, Phyllis was invited to work with her graduate school advisor, then the Dean of the newly-formed Lehman College of Nursing. Together, they created the Baccalaureate Program in Nursing at Lehman.
While searching for students to enroll in the new nursing program, Phyllis visited every high school in New York City; she focused on reaching out to disadvantaged people who wanted a nursing education. Through the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) Program and others like it, students were offered financial and psychological support, tutoring, and other services that enabled them to successfully receive their degrees and certifications.
Also in 1970, and again noticing an advertisement (this time for the Peace Corps), Phyllis became the first black woman to serve as the Medical Officer for the Peace Corps in West Africa (Sierra Leone). She worked there for two and a half years, returned to the U.S., and in less than a year, was back in Africa (Swaziland).
For six years and with an international team from Norway, Jamaica, Lesotho, Tanzania, and the U.S., Phyllis helped found the Swaziland Institute for Health Sciences. There, she taught Psychiatry and Physical Assessment. During those years, there were no Swazi male nurses, as local traditions prohibited men from dealing with dead people and childbirth. The first male Swazi midwife was trained under Phyllis’ guidance, and set an important precedent for that part of Africa.
Phyllis then returned to teaching in New York and focused on the problems of the mentally challenged. She was also an early activist and caregiver during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, providing medications and counseling. She worked at the original LGBT Center on 6th Avenue and marched (“and floated”) in the annual Gay Pride Parade.
In 2007, Jenkins received a Lifetime Achievement Award from NYU. Today, Phyllis remains an active member of St. Luke’s Church and lives with her great grandson, Robert White, and his cat.
Recently, her nursing license was set to expire. At nearly 87 years of age, she considered not renewing it. But she ultimately sent in her papers and a check. After all, she is a first responder—and she’s ready.