Huger resident Janet Wright can still picture her.
It was more than 60 years ago when Wright first interacted with the late nurse Eugenia Broughton, who cared for patients on the Cainhoy peninsula between the 1930s and 1970s. But the memories are still fresh.
“I can see her now,” Wright recalled. “She had her lipstick on and her glasses with a chain at her neck… And she had a little nurse cap on her head – and a white uniform and white shoes.”
Wright was just about five years old when her grandmother first took her to see Broughton, one of Berkeley County’s first Black public health nurses, to get her shots for school. At the time, Broughton had a mobile clinic inside a trailer that she would set up at various places in the community to provide care.
“She didn’t play!” Wright chuckled. “You could cry, you could scream, and she’d hold that arm and she would stick that needle in!”
“But she was a sweetheart,” Wright continued. “She wasn’t mean, but she was straight in what she had to do.”
Fred Lincoln, a native of the nearby Jack Primus community, has similar memories of Broughton.
“Every year I would have to walk all the way from past that gas station (at the intersection of Jack Primus Road and Clements Ferry Road) up here to get the immunization before we went back to school,” said Lincoln, in an oral history interview collected by the Daniel Island Historical Society at Keith School in 2022. “(Nurse) Broughton would be right there in a little trailer… And that last injection they gave, that thing hurt for like three days. We had these guys who would say ‘Oh, Ms. Broughton don’t use a needle, she use a rusty nail!’”
Author Herb Frazier dedicated a chapter to Broughton in his book “Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories of Cainhoy, Wando, Huger, Daniel Island, St. Thomas Island, South Carolina.”
“She did more than help deliver babies,” said Frazier, while giving a talk about his book for residents of Beresford Hall last month. “… She went to folks’ homes, she administered immunization shots… Somebody got a fever, she’d help with that, all kinds of health care. And gave folks, pregnant women, advice on prenatal and postnatal care, and she was very stern.”
“One woman told me…she’d put the alcohol on the cotton ball and she would swab the skin to clean the area before the injection,” Frazier continued. “And if there was any dirt on that cotton ball she would chastise the mother and tell her ‘You need to keep that child clean!’
Everybody loved her and yet they were a little bit afraid of her!”
According to Frazier, Broughton grew up in downtown Charleston and attended Burke Elementary School before enrolling in Avery Normal Institute on Bull Street. She would go on to earn her nursing diploma from Charity Hospital in Savannah in February of 1937.
The following year, Broughton was sent by Bishop Joseph Kearney of the Reformed Episcopal Church to the Wando-Huger communities “to do missionary nursing,” stated a 1958 Berkeley County Health Department report, compiled and written by Lavinia Baskin, RN.
“She lived with a local family and went home to Charleston on the weekends on the line boat that traveled between Cainhoy and Charleston,” wrote Frazier in his book.
Prior to 1904, information about the history of health and welfare in Berkeley County was scant at best.
“Medical care was very limited, there being only two or three practicing physicians t-o cover the territory of more than 1,200 square miles,” wrote Baskin in her report, now part of the collections at Berkeley County Museum. “There were no midwives as they are known today. Only women, known as Grannies, without any training, who did this work and assisted the physicians. Travel was by buggy, horseback and by boat.”
In 1930, the population in Berkeley County was 22,236 – “7,182 white and 15,054 negro,” continued Baskin.
By the time Broughton started her work on the Cainhoy peninsula, the areas she served, predominantly Black communities, were still mostly rural, with dusty, unpaved roads leading to many of the homes she visited. The largest landowner in the region at the time was Harry Frank Guggenheim, whose properties included the 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation tract. A church member donated a car to Broughton that she used to travel to see her patients or to transport them to the doctor. Later, the Reformed Episcopal Church would provide her with a mobile health clinic. But she soon found that she would need extra financial support to be able to provide proper care for the community. Broughton wrote a letter to Guggenheim to ask for help.
“She asked Guggenheim for money to build a small examining room at the rear of Trinity Church, which probably was at the intersection of Cainhoy and Clements Ferry Road,” wrote Frazier. “… The letter was the first of many that Guggenheim and Broughton would exchange over the next three decades.”
Guggenheim answered Broughton’s requests for funding many times, added Frazier, including when she needed money to buy tires for her car.
“She was closely connected with Harry Guggenheim,” said Lincoln, whose father worked for Guggenheim. “They were more like friends.”
Due to the high level of poverty in the community, the care Broughton provided was often the only contact many of her patients had with a health care provider.
“She also sang and preached to her patients, most of them expectant mothers, many single and immature,” Frazier continued in his book. “She tried to explain the facts of life to them in no uncertain terms."
Broughton’s service to Berkeley County closely mirrored that of another pioneering Black nurse midwife, Maude Callen, who also had professional training and certification. Callen, who spent close to 50 years caring for patients in the Pineville area, earned a salary of $6,120 per year in 1971, according to a South Carolina State Board of Health personnel document held at the Berkeley County Museum. Broughton’s salary at the time was likely similar. Both also worked tirelessly to provide education and training for other nurses and midwives.
“To me, they were giving a service that was so needed in rural Berkeley County, but even more than that, they were training the women, hundreds of women, to do exactly what they were doing,” said Brittany Lavelle Tulla, an architectural historian with BVL Historic Preservation Research. “You have this incredible new wave of registered nurses that came in in the 1920s and 30s that begin to formalize and professionalize child delivery. And they go about saving so many lives. It’s incredible.”
Broughton, who never married, was laid to rest in 1983 at Sunset Memorial Gardens in North Charleston, after serving those in need for nearly four decades. Perhaps her contributions are best summed up by Hazel Garland, a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who wrote an article about Broughton in 1952 after spending a day with her as she cared for patients. Watching Broughton perform her duties in “primitive” conditions with limited resources left an indelible impression.
“Less than 20 miles from her native Charleston, she found the greatest need for her talent,” Garland penned. “Her work shines forth like a brilliant stone in a dull setting and together with Miss Callen she is doing a great job for humanity.”