Ms. Eliza Farish Pillars was a major trailblazer for colored nurses in the South and she worked effortlessly to reduce sickness and death among colored people in Mississippi and she was a leader in public health nursing. Ms. Eliza Farish Pillars was born in Jackson, Mississippi on April 26, 1892 to Mr. Walter L. Farish and Mrs. Ella Manuel Farish. She was one of seven children and the oldest girl. She attended Smith Robertson School in Jackson, Mississippi and then studied at Utica Institute, in Utica, Mississippi. From there she received a diploma from Walden University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1909.
Ms. Pillars entered the Hubbard Hospital School of Nursing at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated as a registered nurse in 1914. In 1936, Ms. Pillars completed 4 months of postgraduate work at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. Ms. Pillars actively participated in Lambda Pi Alpha Sorority (Medical) and served as president and financial secretary of the Southern Region of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
She married Mr. Euclid Pillars and although they had no children, she helped raised a niece, Ms. Minnie L. Farish, a well-known educator and Girl Scouts Leader in Jackson. She worked as an office nurse for Dr. H.R. Shands in Jackson, several other doctors, and as a private duty nurse. The Jackson Infirmary Charity Hospital was the only hospital to admit colored people in Jackson. From 1919 to 1925, under the guidance of Dr. Shands, Dr. Rhefieldt, Dr. Hamilton, and Dr. Miller, Ms. Pillars and her sister, Anna Farish, a licensed practical nurse, owned and operated her own 12-bed hospital, the Mercy Hospital in Jackson. They later renovated the old family home as a place to care for colored patients.
On February 1, 1926, Ms. Pillars was the first colored nurse in the State of Mississippi to work for the Mississippi State Board of Health. For decades, Mississippi had a large colored population with low economic status and the highest infant and maternal morbidity among colored people in America. Ms. Pillars played a prominent role after the Mississippi historic 1927 flood. She worked diligently with the American Red Cross in setting up first-aid stations in Vicksburg and Natchez to take care of flood refugees as they were brought in by boat down the Mississippi River from the Delta section of the state.
By rendering invaluable medical services, Ms. Pillars assisted in saving many lives and the preservation of health, thereby, serving her race and the nation. At the outbreak of World War II, there was a need for nurse aides. Ms. Pillars taught the first nurse aide class at the Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi.
In the 1930s eighty-percent (80%) of the colored babies born in the State were delivered by midwives who lived on plantations, remote sections in the backwoods, and small towns. With the assistance of another colored nurse, Ms. Pillars conducted classes for midwives throughout Mississippi utilizing manuals prepared by the State Department of Health to make midwives more efficient and safe. Ms. Pillars taught midwives the techniques of prenatal and postnatal care and actual baby deliver. Because of practices of racial exclusion and few opportunities for preliminary medical or professional education in the South, midwives were readily accepted within colored communities.
Because of scientific trained health officials and medical techniques, many of these illiterate and superstitious midwives were unreceptive to the use of prophylactics for the eyes of the newborn immediately after birth. Since ninety-percent (90%) of the blindness in the United States was caused by infection of the eyes at birth, medical authorities strictly enforced the prophylactics method. Since Ms. Pillars had a profound understanding, tact, and possessed the professional background, she convinced the midwives to place several drops of the solution in each of the babies’ eyes immediately following birth. Due to dire poverty, and the indifference of the authorities, funds were not provided for health care centers. Consequently, Ms. Pillars converted rooms in rural shanties into delivery rooms. Each community had a delivery room where midwives learned the basics for a safe delivery.
Ms. Pillars taught many hygiene classes to students and teachers working closely with them in improving the health of school children. She gave vaccines and inoculations against communicable disease in schools, churches, and private homes. Wherever there was a health problem, she developed a program to meet the needs of her race. Through her services many young women were inspired to enter the nursing profession.
As the years passed, Ms. Pillars’ vision failed and although she never became totally blind, she had to give up the work that she was so committed to on September 30, 1941. Later, Ms. Pillars accepted the position as college nurse at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana until she was forced to retire again due to her eye condition. She was a very dedicated person because she believed that her being there made a difference.
In 1945, due to practices of racial exclusion, colored nurses were denied membership in the Mississippi Nurses Association, therefore, six colored registered nurses in Jackson, Mississippi had the conviction that there was a need for an organized independent colored nurses club. This club would focus its concerns for equal pay, benefits, and adequate staff. This group called upon other colored registered nurses to assist with the formation of an organization to share information and pool their efforts and resources to aid in improving the status of colored nurses in Jackson. It was at this time the Colored Registered Nurses Club became a reality. All meetings were held every month in members’ home on a rotated schedule until the late 1970s.
Ms. Pillars was older, experienced, and knowledgeable, thus, she inspired other nurses to take a stand, demand respect, and gain more knowledge. Through her input by sharing her knowledge of nursing and nursing organizations, the group began to grow. In the 1950s, the club changed its name to the Eliza Pillars Registered Nurses Club in honor of Ms. Pillars.
Ms. Pillars was the fourteenth and last recipient of the Mary Mahoney Medal for distinguished service to nursing and the community at the Essex House in New York, January 26, 1951 given by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. This medal was their highest award. Now, the American Nurses Association presents the Mary Mahoney Medal. Ms. Pillars’ inspiration for other nurses to gain more knowledge is ever present among the members. Scholarships are given within each district every year to deserving nursing students who are entering their senior year and advanced degree students from accredited Schools of Nursing.
Ms. Pillars was inducted posthumously into the Mississippi Nurses Association Hall of Fame during the observance of their Diamond Jubilee, October 15, 1986. In February 1991, District IV of Jackson, donated a portrait of Ms. Pillars to the Mississippi State Department of Health where it is proudly displayed in the main foyer. In 2000, during National Nurses Week, the Eliza Pillars Registered Nurses of Mississippi purchased a brick in Ms. Pillars’ memory in the Mississippi Nurses Association, Mary E. Stainton Center of Nursing Garden, located in Madison, Mississippi. In 2002, the Historical Society of the Mississippi Nurses Association donated a brick in Ms. Pillars’ memory. Today, since the 1945 exclusion, members of Eliza Pillars Registered Nurses of Mississippi are also members and leaders of the Mississippi Nurses Association.
Today, the membership continues the legacy of its founders and namesake by upholding to the philosophy of providing excellent health care. In 2003, after becoming nationally known, the name became the Eliza Pillars Registered Nurses of Mississippi to better reflect its existence and the vision of its founders and Golden Nurses.
Ms. Pillars died June 15, 1970 at the age of 78 and is buried in Garden Memorial Park in Jackson, Mississippi.