Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Carrie J. Clarke Bolden (ca. 1869–11 April 1973), nurse and civic leader, was born in Wytheville, the daughter of Stephen Clarke, a teacher, and Sibbie Jones Redmond Clarke. She later gave her birth date as 21 March 1884, but she was listed as aged eleven in the 1880 census. Little is known about her parents, one or both of whom may have been born into slavery. After her father died in 1880, her mother worked for a time as a laundress and servant and by 1909 had moved to Philadelphia, where she became a caterer. She encouraged her children to achieve. Clarke's siblings included Stephen H. Clarke, a school principal in Portsmouth for fifty years, and Douchette Redmond Clarke, an Episcopal minister.

On 30 September 1886, giving her age as nineteen, Clarke married thirty-year-old Elias Horace Bolden, the presiding elder for the Wytheville District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A clergyman since 1878, he had served in 1884 as supervisor of public schools for African Americans in his hometown of Portsmouth. Bolden must have learned from him, but she also brought talents of her own to their childless marriage. When the AME's Virginia annual conference met at Wytheville in April 1897, the delegates organized the Women's Mite Missionary Society of Virginia and elected Carrie Bolden the first state president.

On 11 July 1902, while serving a church in Newport News, Bolden's husband died. She never remarried. Instead, Bolden entered the Hampton Training School for Nurses, commonly called Dixie Hospital, and graduated in 1904. A year earlier Virginia's professional nurses had obtained legislation requiring that all new nurses pass a written examination in order to be registered in the state. Bolden passed the examination at Norfolk in December 1905. Although not the first black nurse to register (the legislation permitted trained nurses already practicing to register without taking the examination), she was, as best as can be determined, the first to take and pass the examination.

Bolden worked for several years as a private duty nurse in association with local physicians. Nurses were regarded as caregivers to their communities, and she brought talents as a leader and organizer to that role. When members of a social club in Hampton lamented to Bolden just before Christmas 1905 that they were unprepared for the holiday's expenses, she organized a Christmas Savings Club with a dozen members. The plan proved so successful that she organized a similar club the following year in Newport News, her place of residence.

In 1908 several African American physicians of Newport News rented four rooms for a hospital, but it soon closed for lack of funds. Black citizens requiring hospitalization faced a choice between the city jail's infirmary or traveling fifteen miles to Dixie Hospital in Hampton. Bolden's appeal to a women's social club, of which she was a founder and president, to help establish a new hospital resulted in an intensive drive to raise money. Their hard work paid off, and in 1914 a foundation was laid for the facility. Whittaker Memorial Hospital, named for deceased African American physician Robert L. Whittaker, was chartered on 27 May 1914. Impressed by such progress, in March 1915 George Benjamin West, white president of the Citizens and Marine Bank, donated two lots on Twenty-ninth Street between Roanoke and Orcutt Streets in Newport News as the site for the hospital. Despite the failure of efforts to obtain an appropriation from the city council to build and equip the hospital, the organizers carried on, and two years later, on 14 March 1917, Whittaker Memorial Hospital opened to the public. In addition to the hospital, Whittaker Memorial eventually included a tuberculosis sanatorium and a training school for nurses.

In 1916 the Newport News board of education hired Bolden as a school nurse, a post she held until 1949. She served in the elementary schools, the only public schools for blacks in Newport News until 1922, giving physical examinations and testing the students' vision. Alumni remembered her as a small woman with a dignified and serious demeanor, an impression that her white uniform and starched cap reinforced. During the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918 Bolden served without pay as a volunteer nurse at the white Walter Reed High School, which the city designated as an emergency hospital.

Whittaker Memorial Hospital operated at a deficit, and community fund-raising helped keep it open. Bolden was at the forefront of every campaign for money. "Without such a person as Mrs. Bolden," an officer of the hospital later declared, "Whittaker would not be in existence." Her diverse activities in behalf of the hospital ranged from weekly bake sales to organizing a women's auxiliary. For more than forty years Bolden served on the hospital's board of trustees. She was vice president when a new fifty-three-bed hospital was constructed during the 1940s. To honor her long service, a new residence for nurses was named the Carrie J. Bolden Nurses' Home on 29 October 1950.

Remembered as a very private person, Bolden knew her community well and quietly exerted her considerable influence. On 5 February 1913 she was confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church and became active in Saint Augustine's Church. At some point, possibly to avoid age discrimination within the school system, Bolden began giving her birth date as 21 March 1884. She was actually about eighty years old when she finally retired as a school nurse. Residing during the final years of her long life at the hospital she had steadfastly supported, Carrie J. Clarke Bolden died of heart disease at Whittaker Memorial Hospital on 11 April 1973 and was buried at the Pleasant Shade Cemetery in Hampton.

Sources Consulted:
United States Census Schedules, Wythe Co., 1880, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C; Marriage Register, Wythe Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); Israel L. Butt, History of African Methodism in Virginia (1908), 78, 83, 99, 103, 107, 237; Record of Averages of the Nurse Candidates for Registration in Virginia, State Board of Nursing, Record Group 37, LVA; Peabody Newspaper Clipping File (microfiche ed.), item 268, nos. 78–83, Hampton University; Hampton Training School for Nurses and Dixie Hospital, Annual Report (1904/1905): 48; Alexander Crosby Brown, ed., Newport News' 325 Years (1946), 229; feature articles in Newport News Daily Press, 29 Oct. 1950 (portrait), Newport News Times-Herald, 30 Oct. 1950, 16 May 1969 (quotation), and Norfolk Journal and Guide, Peninsula ed., 4 (portrait), 11 Nov. 1950; interviews with Olivia Birchette, Carrie Brown, Florence Crittenden, Inetta Edwards, Ralph Haines, Lillian Lovett, Ruth Thornton, and Julia Tucker; obituaries in Newport News Daily Press, 13 Apr. 1973, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 21 Apr. 1973.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Patricia E. Sloan.

How to cite this page:
Patricia E. Sloan,"Carrie J. Clarke Bolden (ca. 1869–1973)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Bolden_Carrie_Clarke, accessed [today's date]).

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