Maria Smilios Discusses Her New Book ‘The Black Angels’

September 16, 2023

The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses who Helped Cure Tuberculosis by Greek-American Maria Smilios is an impressive book, her first, and highlights a little-known part of American history and the pivotal role Black nurses played in battling one of the deadliest diseases, tuberculosis.

According to the book’s description: In the pre-antibiotic days when tuber­culosis stirred people’s darkest fears, killing one in seven, white nurses at Sea View, New York’s largest municipal hospital, began quitting en masse. Desperate to avert a public health crisis, city officials summoned Black southern nurses, luring them with promises of good pay, a career, and an escape from the stric­tures of Jim Crow. But after arriving, they found themselves on an isolated hilltop in the remote borough of Staten Island, yet again confronting racism and consigned to a woefully understaffed sanatorium, dubbed “the pest house,” where it was said that “no one left alive.”

The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses who Helped Cure Tuberculosis by Maria Smilios. Photo: Penguin Random House

Spanning the Great Depression and moving through World War II and beyond, this remarkable true story follows the intrepid young women known by their patients as the “Black Angels.” For 20 years, they risked their lives work­ing under appalling conditions while caring for New York’s poorest residents, who languished in wards, waiting to die, or became guinea pigs for experimental surgeries and often deadly drugs. But despite their major role in desegregating the New York City hospital system— and their vital work in helping to find the cure for tuberculo­sis at Sea View— these nurses were completely erased from history. The Black Angels recovers the voices of these extraordinary women and puts them at the center of this riveting story, celebrating their legacy and spirit of survival.

As noted in biography, Smilios learned about the Black Angels while working as a science book editor at Springer Publishing. As a native New Yorker and lover of history, medicine, and women’s narratives, she became determined to tell their story. In addition to interviewing historians, archivists, and medical professionals, she spent years immersed in the lives and stories of those close to these extraordinary women. Smilios holds a master of arts in religion and literature from Boston University, where she was a Luce scholar and taught in the religion and writing program.

Smilios spoke with The National Herald about her Greek heritage and about her book. TNH: Where in Greece is your family originally from?

Sea View Hospital, where the story takes place, as it is today. The remaining buildings are collapsing and being overrun by nature. Photo: Maria Smilios

Maria Smilios: My mother’s side of the family is from Vassara, a quaint village tucked in the mountains 24 kilometers [about 15 miles] from Sparta. They left and immigrated to the United States in 1951. My father’s side is from Kastoria and Constantinople.

TNH: How long did the process take from the idea for the book to publication?

MS: It took me eight years to write the book with many rewrites— I believe I rewrote the book from start to finish three times.

TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned during the research/writing process?

MS: Time and again, I was struck by the monumental nature of this story and how no one ever told it or talked about it outside of the Staten Island community. The deeper I fell into researching tuberculosis and Sea View and the more I uncovered about these remarkable Black nurses, the more I kept asking why isn’t this story and their contribution to medicine known worldwide? Now, that the book is out and people can read about these women, I hope that they will finally find their rightful place in history because they deserve it.

TNH: What are you working on next?

Virginia Allen, the last known living Black Angel, is 92 and lives in Staten Island. Photo: Maria Smilios

MS: Writing another book. I came across some fantastic stories in my research and so I’m hoping that one pans out. But I hope to keep talking about the Black Angels and their astonishing story. With publication now I anticipate more nurses’ families and patients will come forward and fill out the story in greater ways. I also want to use the book and the lessons from these nurses to add to the larger much needed conversations about health inequity, systemic racism, communicable diseases, and frontline labor especially in nursing.

The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurses who Helped Cure Tuberculosis by Maria Smilios is available online and in bookstores September 19.

Smilios is currently on tour, presenting the book in various cities across the U.S., including New York at the Astoria Bookshop on September 21, at the United Nations Tuberculosis High Level Meeting and at New York University on September 22, and the Staten Island Museum on September 23.

More information is available online: https://www.mariasmilios.com.


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