A rendering of The Joyce

Durham Housing Authority officials this week announced that a new downtown affordable housing development for seniors will be named in honor of a pioneering Black woman who once lived in the city’s oldest public housing complex.

The new development, “The Joyce Senior Residences,” is named after Joyce Thorpe Nichols, who in 1970 became the first woman and the first Black woman to graduate from Duke University’s physician assistant (PA) program “making her officially the first African American female PA in the country,” according to a housing authority press release Wednesday.

Duke University’s Women in Health reports that the school is “the birthplace of the PA profession” and was established in 1965 under the direction of Dr. Eugene A. Stead Jr., who was chairman of the Department of Medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine.

“Ms. Nichols was in the third Physician Assistant class at Duke, a program that had been strictly attended by men,” according to a biography of the medical pioneer published by Duke Women in Health.

Nichols was born in 1940. The oldest of five children, she grew up in Timberlake, a tiny rural hamlet in Person County. Her father was a farmer and her mother was a schoolteacher. Nichols’s mother died when she was still a child, and her aunt and grandmother helped her father raise the children.

“We were raised in a household—I had three brothers and one sister, but we were raised…in a household of ten girls and eight boys,” Nichols said in a 2006 interview at her home.

Nichols, who grew up on a “farm with a nine-bedroom house, with a fireplace in every room,” was the mother of two small children “and another child on the way,” in late 1964 when she moved into McDougald Terrace, after her husband deserted her.

The housing authority’s release notes “Nichols’s resilience in the medical field.” 

Coupled with a hardworking childhood, surrounded by a loving family that shared in the farm chores, Nichols’s work ethic and perseverance began to flower in 1965 when she graduated from North Carolina Central University months after giving birth to a premature baby that weighed two pounds. While living in public housing Nichols was involved in community activism on behalf of her public housing families along with applying to Duke’s PA program. She was twice denied admission while working as a licensed practical nurse with Duke Hospital’s cardiac intensive care unit. After graduating from NC Central University, Nichols earned a nursing degree from Durham Tech. She went on to serve as a clinical instructor with Duke Hospital’s department of community and family medicine for 14 years. Nichols also worked at Lincoln Community Health Center for 23 years and chaired Lincoln’s board of directors. 

In addition to serving on the Durham Housing Authority’s (DHA) Board of Commissioners, the medical pioneer helped to start the state’s first rural health clinic. Nichols died in 2012. Before her retirement in 1995, she was managing the diabetes and hypertension clinics at Duke Hospital and providing primary care services at a Durham homeless shelter, according to Duke’s Women in Health.

“It’s an honor to recognize Ms. Joyce Nichols and preserve the history of a Black trailblazer in the Durham Community with this new development,” Anthony Scott, DHA’s chief executive officer stated in the release.

DHA officials in the release promise that The Joyce, a planned four-story building, will add to the downtown skyline. It’s expected to be completed by spring of next year. The senior residence will sit one block from Duke’s Physician Assistant School. The $18.8 million senior development will include 80 units, common areas, and green spaces to provide safe, affordable housing for seniors in Durham. 

The housing authority has partnered with Laurel Street, a Charlotte-based multifamily residential developer for the construction of the project.

“Laurel Street is honored to partner with the Durham Housing Authority on this vital project honoring Ms. Joyce Nichols and her historical contributions to medicine as well as providing additional affordable housing options for Durham’s senior residents,” Dionne Nelson, president and chief executive officer of Laurel Street stated in the release.

Development plans call for the construction of one and two-bedroom apartments that feature “open floor plans, spacious closets, kitchen islands, pantries, hardwood-style flooring, quality appliances, ceiling fans and upgraded light fixtures,” according to the project website. The development will be located at 487 Morehead Avenue.

DHA spokeswoman Alayah Sanders on Friday told the INDY that rents at The Joyce will “range from $730 for a one bedroom” for tenants earning 30 percent of the county’s average median income (AMI) to “$1,300 for a two-bedroom” at 80 percent of the AMI.

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.