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'Charlotte icon' Thereasea Elder, Black nurse who integrated public health, dies at 93

'Charlotte icon' Thereasea Elder, Black nurse who integrated public health, dies at 93

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Thereasea Clark Elder

Thereasea Elder began her career at Good Samaritan Hospital, which was segregated and served only Black patients. In 1962, she joined the Mecklenburg County Health Department as its first and only Black nurse.

CHARLOTTE — Thereasea Clark Elder, Charlotte's first Black public health nurse, died at the age of 93 on Tuesday.

Elder — best known and revered for her work as a nurse who integrated Mecklenburg County's Public Health Department — was born in 1927 in Lancaster, S.C., and attended school in Charlotte. According to a history website from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Elder was raised on Hamilton Street in Charlotte's Greenville neighborhood, along with five other children born to Booker T. and Odessa Clark.

Additionally, Elder advocated for the city's Black community in many ways — she registered Black voters, preserved Charlotte's Black history, and volunteered with local and state organizations, including the Greenville Historical Association, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, and the American Red Cross's Greater Carolinas Chapter.

Longtime friend Sally Robinson said Elder's passion was history, and Elder often called her to discuss new ideas and projects to embark on.

"She is probably one of the strongest, most determined and enthusiastic women I've ever known. And I choose those words carefully," Robinson said. "She had a big heart, and reached and loved so many people."

Elder's early career began as a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital, which was segregated and served only Black patients. In 1962, she joined the Mecklenburg County Health Department as its first and only Black nurse. Elder was later joined by others and retired from the county in 1989.

"Over the course of several years, she attended Johnson C. Smith University, the U.S. Cadet Nursing Program and the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham. She also studied pediatrics at Howard University's Freeman Hospital in Washington, D.C.," the Observer reported in 2014. Elder graduated from West Charlotte High School and was among the first students to attend the school when it opened.

Mayor Vi Lyles tweeted about the passing of her "mentor" on Tuesday, calling Elder a "Charlotte icon and legend."

In response, SAFE Coalition asked city officials to rename a street after Elder, who has had a park on Rockwell Church Road in her name since 2013, after her work improving the neighborhood.

Keith Cradle attended Elder's church, Second Calvary Baptist, and regularly sat next to her on Sundays. Cradle said despite being unaware of her story for several years, he recognized her deep empathy for others and wisdom immediately and was not surprised when he discovered her legacy in Charlotte.

"The things she saw and endured, her faith is what carried her through," he said.

He said Elder was one of the first people in church every Sunday. And when Cradle missed church, Elder called to ask why, only hanging up when he assured her that he'd return the following week — with pictures from wherever he had traveled.

During the years Cradle knew Elder, he gained his PhD, and when it was announced in church, he said he remembers Elder leaning over and saying, "That's how you do it, baby. You make us proud."

"She just understood how community worked and how you pay that forward," he said. "That love and support — that was just who she was."

Other Charlotteans and elected officials are mourning her death and posted Wednesday about her legacy on social media.

"As a nurse she suffered many injustices after 1970. I remember hearing her stories. She was a lovely woman and always so positive and encouraging to women. She might have been petite but we all know she was a giant in our community," said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham Tuesday night on Facebook.

Congresswoman Alma Adams, who represents North Carolina's 12th District, tweeted on Wednesday that she was saddened by Elder's passing.

"She was a remarkable warrior, and a kind and gentle soul who was relentless in her commitment to serve our community," Adams said. "I was pleased to have had the opportunity to get to know Mrs. Elder and will truly miss her."

In appearances and interviews before her death, Elder recalled the racism and harassment she endured in her work as a Black nurse in Charlotte. She was originally hired to solely serve the county's Black residents, but a decade later, the county health department's racist policy was changed and she began serving white families.

Elder was a longtime resident of Derita, where she and her husband raised a family, Q City Metro reported Wednesday. In 2017, she was recognized by the Observer's Editorial Board as one of "5 Charlotteans who are unsung heroes among us" and won numerous awards throughout her lifetime for her service to the community. For years, Elder would host a Thanksgiving meal for fire department personnel at Derita's Fire Station No. 22.

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