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February is Black History Month, and in honor of that, we decided to look back at some of the black and African American men and women who helped to shape the industry of nursing. Their strength, and unyielding determination in the face of prejudice and systemic racism to provide medical care and save lives helped shape the profession into what it is today. Here’s a deeper look at some of their contributions.
Harriet Tubman’s name on this list may surprise you. She’s famous for her work on the underground railroad helping slaves escape to freedom, but she was also a nurse. She worked in Washington, D.C. Freedman’s Hospital for a time and from there spent some time as a community nurse and teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina before ending up in Fort Monroe, Virginia where she was matron of a hospital there during the Civil War. She never received compensation for her nursing work during the Civil War, but her life’s calling to tend to the sick and ailing stayed with her until she died. In 1908, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Elderly was built and there she nursed and cared for others until her death.
Betty Smith Williams
Co-founder and former president of the National Black Nurses Association, Betty Smith Williams has spent her nursing career primarily as an educator and a leader. She was the first African American to teach at the university level in the state of California. She went on to become the Assistant Dean for UCLA’s School of Nursing, Dean at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and Founding Dean for the American University of Health Sciences’ School of Nursing.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American to become a licensed nurse in 1879. Before coming a nurse, she worked in a hospital for women and children under many different roles eventually coming to work as a nursing assistant. Her experiences with discrimination in the public sector did not cause her to leave nursing, but to instead focus her skills elsewhere. So, she went to work as a private nurse, where she earned a positive reputation, and in 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.
Estelle Massey Osborne
As the first African American nurse to earn a master’s degree, Estelle Massey Osborne later became president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and worked to create a relationship with the American Nurses Association (ANA) which was white members and not welcoming to African American nurses. She later served as a board member of the ANA, and as of 1982 an annual scholarship in her name was established to help a black nurse achieve a master’s degree in nursing.
James Derham was born a slave in Philadelphia, and went on to become the first African American to have his own medical practice. His practice was in New Orleans, and he was a nurse and a doctor.
Mary Jane Seacole
Mary Jane Seacole, a Jamaican woman was awarded the Order of Merit after her death by the Jamaican Government and is affectionately known as the Black Briton to the United Kingdom. She was an author and a nurse. Her memoir “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands” describes her extensive travels, and how her nursing skills were adamantly refused in London on the grounds of racism. She went on to nurse soldiers during the Crimean War, and treated many during a cholera epidemic.
Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor was born into slavery, and found herself a refugee behind Union lines during the Civil War as a young teen. She found the first black regiment in the U.S. Army and worked as a nurse, and taught literacy. She wrote her memoir, largely focusing on her time as an army nurse just a decade before her death.
Jesse Sleet Scales
Born in Ontario, Jesse Sleet Scales graduated from Provident Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago in 1895 and went on to be the first African American public health nurse in the U.S. Her first public health job as a nurse was in New York, where she visited the homes of African Americans suffering from tuberculosis. Her work in this was submitted for publication in the American Journal of Nursing.
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms was the only black woman in her graduating class in 1900, and went on to be the Supervising Surgical Nurse and Acting Director of New York City’s Lincoln Hospital and Home. She became president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, and her advocacy work directly led to the full integration of black nurses in WWII. She was also the first ever to receive the Mary Mahoney Award.
Martha Minerva Franklin
Martha Minerva Franklin, frustrated by the blatant racism and hospital employment rejections sent letters to fellow black nursing graduates to learn more about their experiences in other cities. As a result of her outreach and networking, she co-founded of the National Association of Colored Graduates. Later she worked in New York public schools as a nurse before retiring and leaving the city.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was the first African American female general in the U.S. army. Her role primarily as a nurse educator, she also became the first black Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. When she retired from the military, she did not retire from nursing. She was a leader with the ANA, and a teacher at the George Mason University’s Center for Health Policy.
Above, there were several mentions of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. That association no longer exists. However, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) was founded in 1971 and is very active. It now has over 200,000 nurse members in 115 chapters. They’re active in their communities providing healthcare services to their communities, organizing conferences for continued education, and career fairs.