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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Black Angels

The Untold Story of the Nurses Who Helped Cure Tuberculosis

By: Maria Smilios

Narrator: Gina Daniels

Penguin Audio

ISBN: 9780593544921

Publisher: PENGUIN GROUP Putnam,

G.P. Putnam's Sons

Publication Date: 09/19/2023

Format: Other

My Rating: 5 Stars + (ARC)


New York City, 1929. A sanatorium, a deadly disease, and a dire nurse shortage. So begins the remarkable true story of the Black nurses who helped cure one of the world’s deadliest plagues: tuberculosis.

During those dark pre-antibiotic days, when tuberculosis killed one in seven people, white nurses at Sea View, New York’s largest municipal hospital, began quitting. Desperate to avert a public health crisis, city officials summoned Black southern nurses, luring them with promises of good pay, a career, and an escape from the strictures of Jim Crow. But after arriving, they found themselves on an isolated hilltop in the remote borough of Staten Island, yet again confronting racism and consigned to a woefully understaffed facility, dubbed “the pest house” where “no one left alive.”

Spanning the Great Depression and moving through World War II and beyond, this story follows the intrepid young women, the “Black Angels,” who, for twenty years, risked their lives working under dreadful conditions while caring for the city’s poorest—1,800 souls languishing in wards, waiting to die or become “guinea pigs” for experimental (often deadly) drugs. Yet despite their major role in desegregating the NYC hospital system—and regardless of their vital work in helping to find the cure for tuberculosis at Sea View—these nurses were completely erased from history. The Black Angels recovers the voices of these extraordinary women and puts them at the center of this riveting story celebrating their legacy and spirit of survival.

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My Review

Maria Smilios' debut, THE BLACK ANGELS, is a brilliant literary masterpiece! Meticulously researched and beautifully written— fully immersive, a remarkable true story of the black nurses (heroines) who helped cure one of the deadliest plagues, Tuberculosis.

THE BLACK ANGELS centers the voices of these extraordinary women and celebrates their legacy and spirit of survival.

New York City, 1929. A sanatorium, a deadly disease, and a dire nurse shortage. Sea View Hospital Staten Island—The largest tuberculosis sanitarium run by a city government in the U.S. Many old buildings at a NYC hospital are in ruins today. Still, it played a vital role in the battle against tuberculosis, which killed 5.6 million people in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century.

Told in Five parts from 1920-1952 with a beautiful Epilogue (2023) wrapping up all the narratives, characters, and heroines with extensive research, notes, resources, photos, and where we are today in 2023, with Notes from the author— an extraordinary book exploring untold American History, connecting the past with the present with beautiful prose. One which will linger long after the book ends.

Thousands of people were dying from TB, and hospitals were running out of room. There was no cure. It was hard to keep nurses due to the fear of contracting the disease. When the white nurses left for other jobs, there opened a place for Black nurses, with the staffing shortage, and a place for those aspiring nurses from the Jim Crow South.

Sea View recruited and offered a way for these Black nurses to escape the South and further their education with positions at Sea View.

We meet Edna Sutton from Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of a preacher raising her younger sister. She had limitations with her nursing in the South due to racial discrimination. She decided to go to New York, leaving the care of her seven-year-old younger sister, Americus, with her brother and his wife in Washington, DC (later coming to live with her).

Edna arrived in Harlem to stay with relatives, thereafter the nurses' residence at Sea View, and later a homeowner. We learn of her personal and professional journey as she meets other black nurses (later called The Black Angels).

There are still racial injustices, politics, riots, discrimination, and poor working conditions while fighting for your life and working around the clock amidst death. At the same time, they frantically searched for a cure.

NURSES: Through this narrative, we follow Edna's life, and the author introduces us to other nurses such as Missouria, (SC), Clemmie, Virginia, and others who worked tirelessly in the ward for over 20 years.

PATIENTS: We also follow the lives of patients like Mamie and others from the war, housewives, men, families, and children, both bad and good, all fighting for their lives.

RESEARCH: Then, in another narrative, we learn more about the details of TB and its research, attempts, experiments, trials, and ultimately, a breakthrough cure for Tuberculosis and its founder, Dr. Edward Robitzek.

VIRGINIA ALLEN: 1947: Edna recruited her niece (age 16) from Detroit, Virginia Allen, to come to Sea View, an integral part of the story and her life. I enjoyed her video interviews (see author's website), among many other features and articles making this book possible. A beautiful woman, age 92, living at Sea View, a renovated retirement home where she worked for many years.

HISTORICAL BACKDROP: The author further enhances the book with the many events occurring during this time.

EPILOGUE: An extraordinary wrap-up of the characters and all The Black Angels that had been a part of something profound that had made the world a better place with photos and the last living Black Angel, Virginia Allen.

TODAY: Even today, TB remains the number one infectious disease killer in the world despite advances in diagnosis and treatment.

THE BLACK ANGELS is beautifully told with characters you will remember for their front line work and sacrifices. Trust me, you will be googling and reading the wealth of information to learn more about this period.

I found Sea View fascinating and enjoyed all the research and history. Incorporating the Southern Black women and others with their personal and professional journeys further enhanced the overall story. I loved these brave young women: Edna, Missouria, Janie, and Virginia!

THANK YOU FOR TELLING THIS STORY! The author tells of writing this story over eight years, when there were not a lot of archives, and diligently set about with oral and personal interviews with one of the Black Angels, Virginia Allen, who is still alive and living at the same place where the story was set now in a retirement home.

Maria Similios brilliantly uses these interviews, memories, and experiences with the hope that The Black Angels will find their rightful place in history and that their story will continue to evolve as more families come forward to talk about these heroic nurses who risked their lives when no one else would, who fought to desegregate New York City's hospital system, and who contribution to humankind cannot be understated.

BRAVO! I highly recommend THE BLACK ANGELS as my top non-fiction book of 2023! I also recommend checking out the author's website and all the references. It's an ideal book club pick for further discussions.

A special thanks go to PENGUIN GROUP Putnam, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and NetGalley for a gifted ARC for an honest opinion.

@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

Pub Date: Sept 19, 2023

My Rating: 5 Stars +

Sept 2023 Must-Read Books

"How Black Nurses Were Recruited to Staten Island to Fight a Deadly Disease"


"The hidden story of Black nurses in the fight against TB and the search for a cure"


"How Poetry Can Animate Narrative Nonfiction"


"Women's History Month: The little-known story of the Black Angels, nurses who treated tuberculosis patients"



One of St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s 40 New Books for Fall Reading

“A gripping book.” —The New York Times

“I've never read anything like The Black Angels, a tale of medical horror and heroism that recalls The Hot Zone as much as it does Hidden Figures. Smilios plunges the reader into the festering tuberculosis wards of 1930s New York, where death was airborne, inevitable—until a few brave nurses changed the lives of millions. This is extraordinary nonfiction.”

—Jason Fagone, author of The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's Enemies

"Historical fiction aficionados will want to take a look."

—Publishers Weekly

“Immensely rewarding…[A] confluence of histories, encompassing public health, urban development, race, class, and social upheaval…[Smilios] blends all of the threads she followed into a big blistering narrative that takes readers into the lives of an exceptional group of individuals whose personal stories are as compelling as the disease they confronted was deadly. Informative, enthralling, and sometimes appalling, this is American history at its best.” —Booklist, starred review

“Edna, Missouria, and Virginia answered a call for nurses and changed the world. These courageous women who desegregated hospitals and tamed an airborne killer at last receive necessary, poignant recognition in Maria Smilios’ exquisitely rendered history.”

—Sarah Rose, author of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II

“The Black Angels are our guides in the story of the battle to defeat tuberculosis, a cadre of women who left the Jim Crow South and fought for their own equality in New York while nursing the great city’s incurable castoffs. Decades of work with dying patients made the Black Angels into invaluable experts when test after desperate test came in the search for a cure. In richly written, capacious prose, Maria Smilios weaves medical history with personal stories of kindness and redemption in a science thriller told on a human scale.”

—Judy Melinek, M.D., and T. J. Mitchell, authors of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner

“With a detective’s tenacity, Maria Smilios pays tribute to the Black Angels, that compassionate cadre of nurses whose meticulous record keeping helped buttress the clinical trials that led to a pivotal breakthrough in the treatment of tuberculosis. She weaves their personal journeys with their professional devotion to the indigent, incurable patients whose care became their cause even as they were unwelcome in most American hospitals because of their race.”

—A'Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker

“A breathless but illuminating conquest-of-disease narrative…Vivid accounts of medical and racial progress with a mostly happy ending.” —Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Photo: © Parker Pfister

Maria Smilios is the author of the forthcoming book The Black Angels: The Untold Story of the Nurse who Helped Cure Tuberculosis forthcoming on September 19, 2023 from Putnam | Penguin Random House in the United States and Virago Books in United Kingdom.

A native of New York City, Maria has a Masters of Arts from Boston University in Religion & Literature where she was a Henry Luce Scholar and a Presidential Scholar and where she taught Essay & Research writing in the university’s writing program.

In 2007, she left Boston and moved back to New York City to teach at an all-girls high school. There she created and ran an intensive summer writing program for teens. Maria also spent five years at Springer Science & Media as Development Editor in the Biomedical Sciences where she worked on books in lung diseases, pediatric and breast cancer, neurology, and ocular diseases.

In the past, Maria has written for The Guardian, American Nurse, Narratively, The Rumpus, Dame Magazine, and The Jewish Daily Forward among others.

The Black Angels is her first book.


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