First All-Black Auxiliary Was Ready to Work
Shirley M. Dennis Reflects on Forming Abington’s Dr. Helen O. Dickens Group
Before she retired, Shirley M. Dennis had been a mover and shaker in the local and national civil rights movement, served in gubernatorial and presidential administrations, taught politics at Harvard University, led an international women’s committee for economic development, and held the title of vice president of institutional advancement at a prominent historically Black college.
In 2002, she proposed forming an all-Black Women’s Board auxiliary at Abington Hospital. Dennis quickly organized the Dr. Helen O. Dickens Auxiliary, which has been operating successfully for almost two decades.
“The members brought enthusiasm, volunteer experience, professional knowledge, and a willingness to work for the success of the auxiliary and the Women’s Board,” Dennis says.
Now 82 years old and still active in the auxiliary, the Willow Grove resident says that she is proud of the Women’s Board for taking the steps to do what no other hospital Women’s Board did back then—invite African American women to become a vital part of its organization.
“At the time, in its long history, the Women’s Board never had more than a handful of African American women involved; they decided it was time to reach out,” she says.
The initial idea was to have the women join the various existing auxiliaries. But Dennis had a more radical proposal—form an all-Black auxiliary that would stand as its own entity.
“There is a large African American community near the hospital—one that has been there for hundreds of years,” explains Claudia Lyles, EdD, a charter member of the organization. “The Dickens Auxiliary was formed so that women of color would be able to volunteer and provide support services to the hospital and the community.”
She notes that historically the African American community was an underused resource for the hospital.
“Had the doors been opened, we would have provided a tremendous amount of support and been of benefit to the hospital and the community. But I think people know that now. They have seen it,” says Lyles, CEO of the Keystone Academy Charter School in Philadelphia.
They began to see the benefit after Dennis opened those doors almost two decades ago.
Shirley Dennis was no stranger to activism and volunteerism when the Women’s Board extended an invitation to the African American community.
A successful career in Philadelphia real estate led to involvement in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. As a key witness in the Human Relations Commission during hearings in Philadelphia, Dennis was instrumental in helping to pass the Fair Housing Law in the city, and later in the state.
She went on to work for the redevelopment authority to fight for African Americans who were being displaced due to urban renewal, and later served as executive director of the United Way’s Housing Association of Delaware Valley, a human rights agency.
In 1977, she went up against the Frank Rizzo administration regarding public housing issues that were discriminatory to African Americans. Her work caught the attention of Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, and she became the chair of the Housing Finance Agency, developing policy and poverty programs throughout the state.
“Some called me a die hard, because I would go after an issue and I would hang on until change came. Some called me a ‘change agent,’ but it was not meant to be complimentary,” she says, adding that she took it as a compliment anyway.
From there, Dennis moved on to a position in the Ronald Reagan administration in Washington, D.C. While serving a two-year stint as director of the Women’s Bureau, she headed up the women’s committee for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France.
She left government work for a fellowship and teaching position at the Harvard Institute of Politics in Boston, then returned to Pennsylvania to work as an executive at PECO Energy. She closed out her career as vice president for Institutional Advancement at Cheyney University.
It was during her tenure at the historically Black college that she became involved with Abington Hospital, and continued her volunteer and advocacy work within the community. She, along with her husband William, the first African American president of the Abington Township Board of Commissioners, was on the committee that helped to establish the free library in Abington. In addition, Dennis was a trustee and volunteer with the hospital, and served on its Martin Luther King Committee.
In 1988, the Women’s Board showed their appreciation for Dennis’ civic leadership by nominating her for the Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania award. The award was established in 1948 to honor women who have shown extraordinary service through a professional career and/or voluntary service in education, science, law, medicine, business, public service, philanthropy, humanities, and the arts. Dennis received the honor, joining such notables as Pearl Buck, Grace Kelly, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
Fourteen years later, the Women’s Board tapped Dennis to bring other outstanding women to the organization as auxiliary members, and she began laying the foundation of an all-African American group.
“We brought our history, our background, our way of doing women’s organizations to the table immediately; it was the structure through which the women believed they could be of most value,” says Dennis.
Lyles adds: “It was important to show that the women represented the community, and for people to see and understand that the African American community is viable, and that we have resources and skills to bring to the table.”
Dennis started out by calling four women she knew from church, including Lyles. Each of the women were asked to invite at least five other women. Forty showed up. At that meeting, they all signed a proclamation to commemorate the historic moment of forming the first Black hospital auxiliary at Abington—and in the state.
There was only one thing missing: a name. One member suggested honoring the first board certified African American OB/GYN in the state of Pennsylvania by calling the organization the Dr. Helen O. Dickens Auxiliary. Dickens, who was also the first African American woman fellow of the American College of Surgeons, was physician to some of the members of the auxiliary, and even delivered a few.
As membership grew, so did the activity level of the auxiliary; they became major fundraisers and dynamic participants in every phase of the Women’s Board. And, while there was acceptance and appreciation for all the Dickens Auxiliary accomplished, there was still some lingering discomfort in the way the ladies were changing the way things were done.
“Because I had been so involved with civil and human rights and as an advocate, I was very comfortable with that discomfort,” Dennis says. “But when there was discomfort, we’d have candid conversations. We’d explain it’s not about us segregating ourselves, but us bringing our strength to the Women’s Board the best way we can.”
The women modeled their auxiliary after other organizations in which they had been involved—sororities and church and social groups, explains Lyles. “We designed it in a way that reflected the typical African American outside organizations; we brought in a legacy program… we did sponsorships where we asked older members to pay the dues of a younger woman… and we mentored…”
The primary role and responsibility of all of the auxiliaries is to provide funding for the hospital to assist with special projects, Lyles says. When Dickens was initiated, the auxiliaries raised money for scholarships for nursing students at the Dixon School of Nursing.
The Dickens Auxiliary’s focus was increasing the number of minority women, particularly African American women, in nursing school through scholarships. At first, the Women’s Board expressed concern, says Dennis, the mother of three daughters. But they quickly came to understand the importance of encouraging and supporting women of color to become nurses.
When the Dixon School of Nursing was integrated into Jefferson College of Nursing, the focus shifted slightly. Currently, auxiliaries select a department or area on which to focus. Today, Dickens supports a clinic that provides outpatient care for newborns and children.
Over the years, the group has hosted brunch and jazz outings, Sunday afternoon dinner and dancing events, a performance by a local Black opera company, and a wine tasting, raising between $10,000 and $15,000 per year.
Lyles says the auxiliary’s mission is ongoing, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, they have turned to virtual events to raise money for the hospital. The group is looking forward to being able to meet and fundraise in person again soon, and to continue to build membership in the auxiliary—which currently has about 100 members—and to keep moving forward with their mission for the hospital.
Dennis gives credit to the Women’s Board for being progressive and inclusive enough to invite the African American community to join the organization.
“We have stayed as a team for almost 20 years now, and I see a dynamic future,” she says, adding, “and I am delighted.”
Black and Female, Helen O. Dickens Blazed Trails
Abington Auxiliary Named for History-Making Physician
As the only African American woman in her medical school class, Helen O. Dickens would sit in the front of the class to avoid being distracted by the racist comments being made by her fellow pupils. Years later, her determination and distinguished career would earn her the honor of being the first African American woman fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1909, Dickens was the daughter of former slaves who encouraged their daughter to seek a good education and professional career. After attending a desegregated high school, she applied to the best schools and hospitals, undaunted by the prejudice she would face.
She earned her MD from the University of Illinois in 1934, and completed an internship at Provident Hospital, a Black hospital in Chicago. She then moved to Philadelphia to work with Aspiranto Health Home, which provided charitable health services and medical care to African American community members in North Philadelphia.
Six years later, Dickens returned to Provident for a residency in obstetrics and gynecology. In 1943, she married Purvis Sinclair Henderson, a fellow resident in pediatric neurosurgery, and moved to Harlem Hospital in New York City. She completed her residency in 1946, and was certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dickens returned to Philadelphia in 1948 as director of the Mercy-Douglass Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Mercy-Douglass was an African American hospital, and the first Black nurse training school in in Philadelphia.
In 1950, Dickens became the first African American woman fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
In the late 1960s, she began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania while serving on the staff of the Woman’s Hospital in Philadelphia. By 1969 she was associate dean in the Office for Minority Affairs at the university, and was instrumental in increasing minority enrollment at the college.
Dickens also conducted extensive research in teen pregnancy and sexual health issues, using the results of her work to advise schools, parents, and health professionals on strategies to lower the incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. She received numerous honors for her work in the field.
Dickens died in 2001. Her daughter, Jayne Henderson Brown, MD, has followed in her footsteps, practicing medicine in Philadelphia.