San Juan Hill and the Black Nurses of the Stillman Settlement

By Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian
January 16, 2020
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
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Black New York: In 1625, eleven enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam to physically clear the land for what we now know as New York City. Some parts of New York, such as Harlem, are well-known black neighborhoods, but black people have lived in and impacted all parts of New York City for centuries. Let us take some time to explore the many areas of New York City where African Americans have lived and thrived, starting circa 1900 in an area then known as San Juan Hill…

Nurses without Patients

It was the early 1900s, Elizabeth Tyler, R.N. had the credentials, she just didn’t have any patients. Black women had long been the designated caretakers for both black and white communities, but it was only in the late 19th century when black women could actually study and earn their titles as registered nurses. Tyler, recently graduated from Freedmen’s Hospital Training School for Nurses and having completed an advanced course in nursing at the Lincoln School for Nurses, found that she was not allowed to treat white patients, and that the black patients didn’t trust her.

After leaving Lincoln, Tyler was quickly hired as the first black visiting nurse at The Henry Street Nursing Settlement by its founder, Lillian Wald. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Wald was a progressive for her time (the first NAACP Convention was held in the Henry Street dining room) and she hired Tyler, but was unable to get any patients for her to treat. Taking matters into her own hands, Tyler traveled uptown to the black tenements of San Juan Hill to try to put her nursing education to use.

Lincoln Nurses

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Group portrait of Lincoln School nurses, 1912"NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1818735

San Juan Hill

Around 1900, the African American population in New York was being pushed from the Lower East Side to farther uptown, settling in an area named San Juan Hill after a battle of the Spanish-American War. San Juan Hill covered the area of 40th Street to about 65th Street on the West Side of Manhattan, and at its peak 10,000 black people lived in this small section of New York. Today, an apartment in this area can rent for around $5,000 a month, but what was it like in the early 20th century for the largely black population that lived in San Juan Hill?  According to an article in the New York Amsterdam News (which began in San Juan Hill):


In 1900 the center for the Negro Colony was around Columbus Circle off 57th street, where housing conditions bordered on a state of almost feudalism. Cold water flats with outside toilets renting for about $10 per month were not the exception but the general rule.


The black residents of this area were wrought with a number of ailments, including a high rate of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, high mortality rates for mothers and babies, poverty, hunger, and the psychological effects of institutional racism.


San Juan Hill 1905

San Juan Hill, circa 1940

The Stillman House Settlement

Nurse Elizabeth Tyler, finding many of the residents of San Juan Hill mistrustful of her, began to befriend the janitors that maintained the tenement buildings and through them gained access to the people who lived there. Knowing she would be more useful in the black neighborhood she asked Lillian Wald to support a Nurse’s Settlement for San Juan Hill, which she did. The new settlement, at 154 West 62nd Street, became the Stillman House, after Thomas Stillman whose daughter provided financial support.

Stillman Branch nurses

The Stillman Branch, Courtesy of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Archives

What is a Settlement?

Settlement houses became popular in the late 19th century and slowly phased out in the 1920s (although some, like Henry Street, still exist). The purpose was to serve poverty-stricken areas with services such as health care, educational opportunities, arts, and other services.

The Impact of Stillman House

Starting in a small storefront, and run by just a few nurses, including Elizabeth Tyler, Edith Carter, and Jessie Sleet Scales, the Stillman House Settlement provided health care and social services to the black community in San Juan Hill. At the start, the nurses would enter apartments and find people ravaged with tuberculosis, paralysis, and other forms of suffering who could not afford doctors or were refused treatment by white doctors and nurses. This small group of women, with the help of philanthropists, established a settlement that would eventually provide not only treatment for the sick, but a bank, classes in history, dancing, carpentry, sewing, a men’s civic club, and even a playground for the community’s children. The New York Public Library even established a traveling branch to the Settlement. 


Elizabeth Tyler and Edith Carter

Elizabeth Tyler and Edith Carter, courtesy of the Henry Street Settlement Archives


The Settlement continued to grow and help the community thrive, and moved to three other locations within San Juan Hill. Eventually developers began to rebrand the area, and called it Columbus Hill, and the Settlement changed its name to Columbus Hill House. However, during the 1910s, as different immigrant groups moved in, the black community migrated farther uptown, where there are more stories to be told.


*Special thanks to the staff of the Henry Street Settlement.


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More in the Black New York Series