Thereasea Clark Elder was born in 1927 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and grew up on Hamilton Street in the Greenville neighborhood. (The NC Music Factory occupies that land today.) She was the sixth child of Booker T. and Odessa Clark. “I had a wonderful childhood,” she recalled in a 2001 interview, stressing that “everybody looked out for everybody else.” (“Oral History Interview,” p.5). Her parents and neighbors taught her the value of education and religious faith, which have guided her life and career.
Young Thereasea Clark began West Charlotte High school in 1938 – the first year of its operation. After graduation she studied for a year at Johnson C. Smith University, but after that, with the war over and the economy opening up, she transferred to NC Central University in Durham to study nursing. “Durham was an eye-opener,” she said of this experience, because NC Central provided opportunities for its students to serve in the community. (“Oral History Interview,” p.13)
Married by this time, Thereasea Elder returned to Charlotte after graduation from NC Central University and worked at Good Samaritan Hospital, which had served the African American community since 1888. Nurses there, she said, made up for shortages of basic supplies by providing “loving care.” (“Oral History Interview, p.16) At the same time that she was working there and raising a family, she completed a certificate program in public health nursing at UNC Chapel Hill.
In 1962 she began working as a public health nurse for Mecklenburg County. This job called on the same determination and professionalism that she had shown in building her career to this point. Instead of seeing patients when they come to a healthcare facility with a problem, a public health nurse goes out into the community and performs health checks or administers prescribed medication. In this job, said Ms. Elder, a nurse gets to know every family in her district. (“Oral History Interview,”p.25) Her success was measured by decreased absentee rates in schools and greater health literacy among the families she was responsible for.
Mecklenburg County eventually tasked Ms. Elder with the responsibility of breaking the color barrier in public health service. She and another African American nurse were assigned predominantly white districts, which they would serve unaccompanied by a white nurse. “It was not as easy as I thought it was, but it was a success,” she said, looking back on the experience. She experienced initial skepticism and disrespectful language, but told herself, “I could not give up, because I had been told that if black nurses were going to visit in white homes, you’re . . . going to have to do it.” (“Oral History Interview,” p.20) She ended up building the same kind of relationships with this new set of patients as she had in her previous district.
In addition to her nursing career, Thereasea Elder has devoted herself to community improvement, earning local and state recognition. Even though the Greenville neighborhood where she grew up has been demolished, she has worked to keep memories of it alive through the Greenville Historical Association, of which she was president. She has been active in the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women, on the Board of the Greater Carolinas Chapter of the American Red Cross, and was recognized in 2013 by Johnson C. Smith University for her work in strengthening the Rockwell neighborhood on West Sugar Creek Road. In 2001, Governor Mike Easley of North Carolina conferred upon her the Order of the Long-Leaf Pine for doing “great service to [her] community or the state.”
“We all have a purpose here,” said Ms. Elder at an event in 2013. (Charlotte Observer, January 3, 2013, p.1B) By living her purpose for 90 plus years, Thereasea Elder can enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, the thanks of others whom she has helped, and the recognition of a city that she has changed for the better.
To learn more about Thereasea Elders’s civic leadership and influence on the Charlotte community, visit cmstory.org, the website of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room of the Main Library. Alternatively, check out this oral interview from May 2001 housed at the J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Thereasea Elder died at age 93 on Tuesday, January 5, 2021.