Freda McKissic Bush knew from an early age what she would do with her life. She wanted to help new mothers and children. She wanted to be a nurse.
Bush grew up in a large family in Pine Bluff. She was the fifth of nine in the McKissic family. The older children helped care for the younger ones, so she quickly learned the passion she had to care for children and decided at 6 years old she would one day become a nurse.
“My mother loved having babies and was a great mother,” Bush said. “That was the impetus for me wanting to become a nurse. I wanted to help care for women in childbearing and help them have the same experience and joy my mother had.”
College was not a choice in the McKissic family. It was a requirement. In a poor, African-American family in the South and the middle of the Civil Rights movement, there were few avenues to advancement. The McKissics made sure their children took advantage of one of them: a solid education.
The choice for each of the nine children lay in how they paid for that education. There was scholarships, work or loans.
“Daddy would always say he suggested a scholarship,” Bush said. “That was how we were brought up. We were expected to achieve.”
Every night when dinner was done, the kitchen table transformed into a study hall. The children gathered around with their books and they completed the day’s homework.
“We were all high achievers, because college was our goal,” she said.
Bush graduated salutatorian from her high school class of 50 and immediately turned her attention to finding a nursing school. Unfortunately, the segregation battle still raged across the country and it was difficult for her to find a nursing school in Arkansas that offered a bachelor’s degree and accepted black students.
Initially coming up empty in Arkansas, she and her mother searched throughout the region for a school that accepted black students and found one on the east coast. Ultimately, Bush’s mother refused to send her daughter to a school so far away.
“She said there was no way she was going to put her 16-year-old daughter on a train, not knowing when she would see me again,” Bush said.
It was chance and a little initiative that opened the door for Bush at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) when her mother, there seeing a family member, walked over to the College of Nursing to see if there was a spot for her daughter.
She met with Dean Francis Russell and the next fall, Bush started in an undergraduate program in Fayetteville with her sights set on UAMS.
Coursework had never been an issue for Bush who sailed through high school with hard work and study, but she ran into issues early in college. To keep her student loan, she had to maintain a 2.5 GPA.
A dejected Bush called her mother when her GPA dropped to a 2.49, sure she would be forced to leave the program and return home.
“My mother told me to stay there,” Bush said. “She said, ‘Make them kick you out.’”
So, Bush stayed and continued going to class. Meanwhile, her mother called Dean Russell to see what options her daughter had to remain in the program.
Not long after, Russell called her mother back and said an anonymous donor wanted to contribute a scholarship to a deserving African-American student. Bush would be the recipient.
It was her senior year before Bush and her mother met her benefactor, a retired school teacher from Conway.
“She had been hospitalized and received excellent care from a licensed practical nurse who was an African-American,” Bush said. “She decided she wanted to help her become an RN, but unfortunately she was not able to attend school at that time.”
The teacher then contacted UAMS and gave the money for a scholarship to go to a deserving African-American student, who turned out to be Bush.
“She had done so much for me, and I asked her how I could ever repay her,” Bush said. “She told me to pass it on. My family has always been generous, and we have continued to help others. It’s a conduit, it keeps it flowing.”
As with high school, Bush graduated college with honors. She called her education at UAMS “superb,” and said she was well-prepared to be a nurse when she left.
“As a bachelor’s prepared nurse from UAMS, we always got compliments on our performance,” Bush said. “We were taught the theory and academic understanding of why we were doing things a certain way.”
Coming from the McKissic family, she always had the desire to learn, but Bush also credits Dean Elois Fields for the impact she had on countless students at UAMS and her personal decision to seek more education.
“She always wanted us to get our master’s and doctorate,” she said.
Bush would go on to earn her master’s at Columbia University, direct the University of Mississippi School of Nursing’s Midwifery program and become an obstetrician-gynecologist after completing medical school in 1983.
It was her husband, Lee, that finally convinced her to enroll in medical school, but Bush said the seeds were planted during her time as a clinical instructor at UAMS.
“It was not just a job, you were teaching others and caring for others,” she said. “That philosophy was helpful for me as I left and went on to get my master’s and complete medical school. I wanted to know more and do more in caring for mothers and babies.”
Bush’s connection to UAMS has not waned over the years. She began a 3-year term in February on the college’s advisory board. In the role, she supports the college’s philanthropic efforts, provides valued counsel to the college dean and serves as an advocate for the college’s mission.
Bush practiced as an OBGYN in Mississippi for decades until her retirement in 2017. Bush and her husband have four children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.