Filed Under Authors

Occomy Women

For the better part of the 20th century, the Occomy family called 85 John Street their home. Walter Calvert Occomy and Nellie White Occomy, noted humanitarians and members of the city’s Black churches, purchased the house in 1914 and it was a hub of academic and civic pursuits. Looking back at the lives of the Occomys’ three daughters gives us some sense of a family whose activities shaped the past in ways that resonate in the present. 

Ruth Occomy (1891-1945) came first. Born in 1891, she graduated from Hope High School and assisted at the Providence Shelter for Colored Children, where she decided to enter nursing. The Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx—at the time one of the few training schools that admitted Black students—initially rejected her application, citing her small stature. Known for her strong personality, Ruth persisted in gaining an acceptance, completed her degree in 1921, and followed up with a year of courses at Columbia University Teachers’ College. 

While Ruth studied nursing, her younger sisters, Katherine (1893-1980) and Nell (1897-1953), attended Hope High School. In 1910, Katherine and her husband Lawrence welcomed a son. After a few years, Katherine moved to New York City where she worked as a maid and presumably pursued her career as a dancer. In 1919, the youngest Occomy sister, Nell, graduated with a teaching degree from the State Normal School (now Rhode Island College). Because of discriminatory hiring practices in Providence public schools she moved to Harlem to seek work. 

Nell flourished in New York City. She taught junior high and, like Ruth, enrolled in a post-graduate program at the Teachers’ College. In the 1930s, she honed her talents as an arts and culture writer, weighing in on debates of national importance like birth control, writing profiles of Black playwrights, and working as editor-in-chief of The Krinon, magazine of Phi Delta Kappa, a Black sorority founded in 1921 in New Jersey. 

Ruth’s profession took her further from home. After a 1927 send-off that included lectures and a chorus of 200 men at Olney Street Baptist Church, Ruth sailed to London to study tropical diseases with Dr. Pauline E. Dinkins. The two then departed for Monrovia, Liberia, where Ruth worked as a missionary nurse for several years. Even when seriously ill with malaria, Ruth was not ready to abandon her post, explaining in a letter to her parents that the hospital had noticeably improved the health of a community living in the “most humble of circumstances.” 

Regardless of where their careers took them, the Occomy women felt the pull of home. Nell returned to 85 John Street with her husband Leslie E. Becker for the birth of their first child. She enjoyed friendships with Providence artists, including Nancy Elizabeth Prophet. Ruth returned to the Occomy home in the 1930s to stay. She practiced nursing until suffering from an illness that ended her life in 1945. Katherine came home in the 1930s and lived at 85 John Street for the next five decades. She worked as a palm reader and raised her son, while living at home with mom, dad, brothers, grandchildren, and a handful of family friends. Katherine’s activities garnered less publicity than her sisters’, but even so we know something significant about her. She fulfilled her mother’s desires for an enduring family legacy through 85 John Street: 

“I give and devise to my daughter Ruth E. Occomy for and during her natural life the real estate situated at #85 John Street, then to the survivors of my children and their heirs [to] forever share and share alike” - Nellie White Occomy, 1941

Images

Portrait of Ruth Elizabeth Occomy, RN [Postcard] Postcards of nurses were common in the first half of the 20th century, but examples of postcards depicting Black nurses from that period are rare (Zwerdling, Postcards of Nursing, 2004). Dr. Gross had the foresight to preserve this postcard portrait of Ruth Occomy. Photographed in her nursing uniform, this postcard of Ruth must have been a source of pride in her family. It probably functioned as a convenient form of communication to and from Liberia, and, like some postcards of this type, may have been created as part of a fundraiser to benefit Ruth’s mission trip. Source: Papers of Dr. Carl Russell Gross, James P. Adams Library Special Collections, Rhode Island College Date: 1920s
Verso of Ruth Elizabeth Occomy, RN [Postcard] Without Dr. Gross’s handwritten verso notes, researchers today may not be able to identify Ruth Occomy as the subject of this postcard portrait. Dr. Gross was methodical in collecting, categorizing, and cataloguing his research materials. Source: Papers of Dr. Carl Russell Gross, James P. Adams Library Special Collections, Rhode Island College Date: 1920s
Nell Occomy Becker The National Urban League journal Opportunity featured this photograph of Nell Occomy Becker alongside an enthusiastic review of her work as editor-in-chief of The Krinon, magazine of the Phi Delta Kappa sorority. Nell served as editor-in-chief of The Krinon from 1932 to 1938. Source: Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life, November 1936, p. 347. Date: 1936
85 John Street Katherine Occomy lived at 85 John Street when this photograph was taken by the Providence Preservation Society. Source: Mary A. Gowdey Library of House Histories, Providence Preservation Society Creator: Providence Preservation Society Date: ca. 1970
Excerpt from Manuscript F Research into the lives of the Occomy sisters began with this note from one of Dr. Gross’s timelines. Source: Papers of Dr. Carl Russell Gross, James P. Adams Library Special Collections, Rhode Island College Creator: Dr. Carl Russell Gross Date: 1960s

Location

85 John Street, Providence, RI 02906

Metadata

Amy Barlow, “Occomy Women,” Rhode Tour, accessed December 2, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/420.