Celebrating a Tradition – African-American Nursing

February is Black History Month and we want to acknowledge the rich tradition of Black nurses in America. We are pleased to honor a few of the most well-known Black nurses who fought social injustice and deserve to be remembered.

Mary Eliza Mahoney – The First Black Nurse

We’re sure there were many Black nurses taking care of loved ones at home. Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first professional black nurse. She was born in Boston on May 7, 1845 and began her nursing career at the age of 18 by working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. At age 33, she was accepted into their nursing school. Not only was she the only Black nurse, their nursing school was the first professional nursing program in the country.

After being one of only four to graduate from the original class of 42, she registered as a private-duty nurse. Her professionalism made its mark early on. Frequently, nurses during that time were given domestic tasks as well as nursing duties. Ms. Mahoney refused to eat her meals with household staff. Her reputation quickly grew and made her in high demand across the country.

Mabel Keaton Staupers

Following this beginning, Mabel Keaton Staupers overcame the frustrations of segregated nursing programs and used her position as a nurse to fight for racial equality in addition to her nursing duties. She quickly became a leader for the cause and is credited for being a major factor in the breakdown of segregation in the U.S. and the nursing profession.

Betty Smith Williams

Betty Smith Williams’ childhood in South Bend, Indiana left her with a lasting impression that activism did make a difference. She took this belief with her into her nursing career. She began by being the first black person to graduate from Cleveland, Ohio’s France Payne Bolton School of Nursing. Impressively, she was also the first black person to teach at a college or university in California. Her most lasting achievement, however, may be the founding of the National Black Nurses Association.

Estelle Massey Osborne

From the beginning of her career Estelle Massey Osborne was a champion of black nurses. She was the first black woman to earn a master’s degree in nursing. As a consultant for the National Nursing Council for War Services, Ms. Osborne was instrumental in getting the color ban lifted for nurses in the U.S. Army and Navy. Her work also doubled the number of nursing schools that would accept black students. In 1945, she became the first black member of New York University’s teaching staff.

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

When Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was told by her local nursing school that blacks weren’t allowed to attend, she promptly found a way to show them how wrong that policy was. She trained in Harlem and joined the Army as a nurse. Her skills in the operating theater brought great acclaim and helped her quickly climb the ranks. She was the first black woman to be given the title of Brigadier General and head the 7,000-strong US Army Nurse Crops. She was named Army nurse of the year twice.

We honor these trailblazing nurses for their amazing contributions to the nursing field and for their activism to desegregate the profession.