A mural dedicated to one of Berea College’s unsung heroes was unveiled in the Old Town Artisan Village area of Berea on August 27, 2020. The mural honors Mary Eliza Merritt, 1902 graduate of Berea College’s nursing program. Merritt was the first African American to be licensed as a registered nurse in Kentucky.
A small crowd gathered for the unveiling, which featured the mural artist, Jaylin Stewart, of Louisville; Dr. Jackie Burnside ‘74, Berea College professor of sociology and author of “Berea’s First Generation of Black Women;” Dr. Edd Easton-Hogg ‘02, who commissioned the mural; and Berea city councilwoman Emily LaDouceur ‘04.
Born and raised on a Berea farm, Merritt graduated from Berea College’s two-year nursing program and finished her training at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. She returned to Kentucky to work as the private nurse for Cassius Clay, the abolitionist politician who donated the land on which Berea College was built.
A close friend of Berea College president William Frost and first lady Eleanor, Merritt was invited by a Berea College donor to be the superintendent of the Red Cross Hospital in Louisville. Due to segregation, the hospital was the only place in Kentucky African American nurses could be trained at the time. The “superintendent, mother, guiding spirit, cook and chief inspiration” of the Red Cross Hospital served in this position for 34 years and was awarded the Mary Mahoney Medal for distinguished service in nursing from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1949.
“She’s one of the women I give as an example, who started from the beginning, hung in there, persevered,” Dr. Burnside said. “She had support from a variety of people, and she was able to give back to the community in many ways.”
Dr. Easton-Hogg said he commissioned the mural to “encourage people and share hope.” His sentiments were echoed by LaDouceur, who spoke on the importance of public art to share untold stories in a community.
“I’m super grateful to [paint] such an important woman,” Stewart said, “not only in Berea, but in Kentucky. Murals have always been a big goal of mine. I started my mission to help myself, but it helped other people along the way.”
Mary Merritt’s mural, which stands at the corner of Washington Avenue and North Broadway Street, joins a wider project to honor prominent Black women in Berea. Another mural, on the patio wall of nearby Apollo Pizza, depicts bell hooks, feminist author and Berea College’s distinguished professor in residence in Appalachian Studies.