Ophelia B. Northcross
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Ophelia B. Northcross

Nurse and Hospital Administrator

Mercy General Hospital


Ophelia B. Northcross

Mrs. Ophelia Northcross was born on March 9, 1926 in Mobile, Alabama to Albert and Grace Burnett. She attended Dunbar High School in Mobile and graduated in 1943 after completing the 11th grade.

At age seventeen, Mrs. Northcross applied to Tuskegee Institute and was accepted in the nursing program. In 1946, after receiving her nursing diploma from Tuskegee, Mrs. Northcross moved to Detroit because she learned through the nursing journals that the city had the highest paying nursing jobs in the state at the time. She applied to Children's Hospital of Detroit, but was not hired because she was African American. Instead, she began working with Dr. Walter Mack at Burton Mercy Hospital by day and at Mercy Whole Hospital-a Catholic-run cancer hospital-by night.

In Detroit, she reconnected with Dr. David Northcross, Jr., son of Drs. David and Daisy Northcross, and the founders of Mercy General Hospital. She had initially met him while they were both at Tuskegee. While they were dating, Mrs. Northcross soon became involved in the administration of Mercy General Hospital. Upon marrying Dr. David Northcross, Jr., she resigned from her position as operating room nurse at Grace Hospital and then began to work at Mercy General full-time, alternating between nursing and administrative duties.

During the early 1950's she pursued a degree in public health nursing from Wayne State University, but was unable to complete it because of the military duties of her husband and ailing health of her mother-in-law. She became responsible for the administration of Mercy General hospital and was instrumental in the relocation of the hospital from its location on Winder to Boston as the result of the construction of Interstate I-75.

In 1966, she left the hospital to pursue a career in occupational health. She worked at General Motors and at 19 different facilities for Chrysler before retiring in 1988.

Tape recorded interview;
Detroit, MI
16 April  1998
audio clip

Discusses her migration to Detroit and racial discrimination in finding employment in health care

I came here to live at Children’s Hospital…[In] 1946, October. And I was to go to Wayne State [University], live in the nursing home, and work at Children’s [Hospital]. And when I arrived, the lady said to me—the suitcase and all are going to the nursing home—she said, “We didn’t notice that Tuskegee,”—they mumbled around in the office—“was a Black school; we don’t hire Blacks here.”…And so she just left it at that. My mom had given me an address of my uncle’s girlfriend that had sent me a graduation present. They used to do that years ago when you couldn’t go in [a hotel] and they would say, “Now, you call this person,” because they would either give you a room or show you where it was. So, I walked. I’d asked the cab driver, “Where is this?”, on the way to Children’s [Hospital]. And he said, “I pass by there.” Coming from Grand Central Railroad Station, he came down Mack and said, “There’s the house.” Then it wasn’t that far to Children’s [Hospital]. I didn’t want to spend any more money, so I said, “Oh, I could walk that,” and I walked and sat on the suitcase. When I got to Mack Street there was a nun watering the [Mercy] Hall Hospital [lawn], a cancer hospital, and I had said, “A nun watering!” Because see, I came from a Catholic town, [where the nuns] have a maid, and I said, “Are you a [nun]? Is this a hospital or a house, or what is this, and why are you watering?” And I talked to her. I was sitting there resting. She said, “It’s a cancer hospital, and I own it.” So I said, “Well, I just left [the] Cancer Research [Center] in New York.” And she said, “What are you?” I said, “I’m a registered nurse.” I got my little things out and I had a temporary permit, because you had to be 21 [years old], and I showed it to her. I said, “I was supposed to work over there at Children’s, but they said they don’t have colored nurses.” She says, “Well, I hire colored nurses here. I said, “I’m walking over here to see if I can get me a place to stay at this house.”—[I was] right in front of it. And she said, “You could come back if you don’t get a place. I have a room here and you can work for me.” She’s a White nun…I said, “Okay.” So, I went over and rang the bell and a lady came to the door, the caretaker.

Well, my mother had written her a letter. She said, “Velma’s expecting you today. She told me to keep you until she comes home.” She said, “But, you don’t look like you are [a nurse]. You can’t [be]. I said, “I’m not 16, I’m 20 and I’m a registered nurse.” She said, “Because she’s got a job for you.” I went in. She cooked breakfast. Velma was her name; she ran the elevator. She got off from [work at] Hudson’s. I said, “Oh, I got me a job today if I don’t get one.” She said, “You don’t want to work for that old, mean sister over there.” She said, “I got you a job with Dr. Mack in the hospital in the back—Burton Mercy [Hospital].” It was called “the hospital in the back.” She lived there, and then this hospital was here, and that was a little complex up there—Hutzel [Hospital], it was Woman’s, then Grace [Hospital]. So, I said, “Well, I don’t know anybody in this city, I’ll just work both jobs.” She took me to Dr. Mack’s office, and he took me over to Burton Mercy [Hospital] and they hired me. So, I said, “I’ll work days over there,” because [the nun] told me to come at 8 o’clock the next morning. And I worked nights, 11 [p.m.] to 7 [a.m.], and then I would come home and go across the street and work 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.]. And while I was working nights, the residents that I left at Cancer Research—Black—were over there at Burton Mercy [Hospital].


William G. Anderson
Reginald P. Ayala
Arthur W Boddie
Wilma Brakefield-Caldwell
Henry C. Bryant Jr.
Alice Burton
Waldo L. Cain
James W. Collins
Claude and Vivienne Cooper
Gladys B. Dillard
George Gaines Jr.
Leon Gant
Herman J. Glass Sr.
Della Goodwin
Joseph B. Harris
Frank P. Iacobell
Horace L. Jefferson
Sidney B. Jenkins
Arthur Johnson
Rachel B. Keith
William E. Lawson
Josephine Love
Hayward Maben Jr.
Berna C. Mason
Suesetta T. McCree
Dorothy Mottley
David C. Northcross Jr.
Ophelia B. Northcross
Marjorie Peebles-Meyers
Frank P. Raiford III
Garther Roberson Jr.
S. L. Roberson
Elsie Smith
Fannie L. Starks
Lionel F. Swan
Natalia M. Tanner
Oretta Mae Todd
I. Clara Webb
Charles F. Whitten
Charles H. Wright
Watson Young


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Copyright , Kellogg African American Health Care Project, 2000.
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