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African-American Nurses Who Paved the Way

Advancing Culturally Competent Care
February 15, 2017
African-American Nurses Who Paved the Way

In honor of African-American History Month, the Campaign is reflecting on African-American nurses who made significant contributions to the nursing profession. Despite centuries of oppression and prejudice, these three nursing pioneers – and countless others – overcame adversity and broke through barriers to pave the way for nurses of all backgrounds.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Although many African-Americans functioned as nurses before her, Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first African-American to graduate from a nursing program and earn a professional nursing license. As one of 42 students admitted into the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses (the nation’s first professional nursing program) in Boston, Mass., she was one of only three people in her class to complete the rigorous 16-month program in 1878. Mahoney stayed in Boston and became a private-duty nurse known for her strict professionalism and kind demeanor. 

In addition to her remarkable personal career, Mahoney is also remembered for her contributions to professional organizations. She was an early member of what would later become the American Nurses Association (ANA), and in 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah B. Thoms. She was a prominent advocate for equality in nursing education, as well as an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage. When the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920, she became one of the first women in Boston to register to vote at the age of 76.

Ten years after her death, NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936 and the award was continued when NACGN merged with the ANA in 1951. Today, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially for significant contributions to opening and advancing equal opportunities in nursing to members of minority groups.

Source and image credit: American Nurses Association.

Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989)

After immigrating to the United States from Barbados as a teenager, Mabel Keaton Staupers enrolled in the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing (now the Howard University College of Nursing) in Washington, D.C., in 1914. After working for a few years as a private-duty nurse, in 1920, she joined African-American physicians Louis T. Wright and James Wilson in New York, N.Y., as the director of nursing at the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium  --  the first hospital in Harlem to treat African-Americans with tuberculosis, a major public health problem at the time. Eventually, her research into the health care needs in Harlem led to the founding of the Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.

As executive secretary of the NACGN, Staupers was instrumental in integrating African-American nurses into the United States military, enlisting the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and leading a national letter-writing campaign to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other political leaders of the need to fully desegregate the armed forces. Her campaign was successful in garnering widespread public support and African-American nurses were wholly accepted by both the Army and Navy by January 1945.

Buoyed by the success, Staupers shifted her attention to the full professional integration of the ANA, which was achieved in 1948. To commemorate her contributions to integrating African-Americans into the nursing profession, she was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1951.

Sources: The New York Times and the American Nurses Association.

Image credit: American Nurses Association.

Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)

One nurse who benefitted greatly from Staupers’ work to integrate the Army Nurse Corps was Hazel Johnson-Brown, who enlisted in the Army in 1955. She served domestically and abroad in Japan and Korea, and was instrumental in training nurses deployed during the Vietnam War. 

A highly skilled surgical nurse dedicated to advancing nursing education, Johnson-Brown quickly rose through the ranks and made military history in 1979, when she was simultaneously promoted to brigadier general and chief of the Army Nurse Corps, becoming the first African-American woman to hold either position. As noted by the ANA, during her four-year tenure as chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Johnson-Brown oversaw 7,000 men and women nurses in the Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserves. Additionally, she set policy and monitored the operations of eight Army medical centers, 56 community hospitals, and 143 freestanding clinics in the U.S. and abroad. 

After she retired from the military, Johnson-Brown served as a nursing professor at several institutions, headed the American Nurses Association’s government relations unit and was instrumental in founding the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Sources: The Washington Post and the American Nurses Association.

Image credit: The Washington Post.

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To learn more about current initiatives to advance and support African-American nurses, please visit the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) website. For more information on influential people and moments in African-American history, culture and community, please visit the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

To support future African-American nurses, donate a photo to the African-American student nursing cause on the Donate a Photo app from Johnson & Johnson. You can help send African-American students to nursing school by simply sharing your photos. For every photo you share to the student nurse cause on the app through May 31, 2017, Johnson & Johnson will donate $1 to the Foundation of the National Student Nurses’ Association (FNSNA) nursing scholarships. That $1 will go toward 30 nursing school scholarships. For every 1000 photos donated, an African-American student will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship for nursing school. 

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