Diverse Perspectives & Advocacy

Black History Month - Notable Nurses Throughout History

The Trusted Team
February 20, 2020
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With 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, it’s an opportune time to give greater praise to all of the nurses out there that work tirelessly for the health and betterment of the global population. 

However, we shouldn’t have to wait for “our year” to give credit where credit is due, but unfortunately, the indefatigable work of the nursing community often goes under appreciated (at least publicly). With nearly 10% of the nursing community identifying as Black or African American, that’s over 350,000 registered nurses and LPNs working today that are deserving of more public acknowledgement.

Today, we are fortunate to have representative bodies such as the National Black Nurses Association to help support minority nurse leaders in leading the charge to a healthier global community, but it wasn’t always this way.

Given that February is Black History Month, let’s take a look back in history to recognize the incredible Black and African American foremothers and forefathers of nursing, who had to deal with a lot more than just cumbersome EHR systems.

James Derham nurse and physician (1762-early 1800s)
James Derham, nurse and physician (1762-early 1800s)

James Derham (1762-Early 1800s)

James Derham was the first African American to formally practice medicine in the United States as both a nurse and physician. Born into slavery in Philadelphia, Derham eventually served under Dr. John Kearsley, who taught him about compound medicine, professional bedside manner, and the basics of throat medicine. He was then transferred two more times before receiving his freedom in New Orleans and opening up his own practice, the first documented medical practice run and owned by an African American.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery in 1797. She is most commonly known for her work as an abolitionist, advocate and speaker for women’s rights, and the first Black woman to win a court case vying for the returned ownership (freedom) of her son. She also spent years serving as a nurse. She is most praised for her speech given in 1851, entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?,” in which she demanded equal rights for all women as well as all African Americans. 

Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881)

Mary Seacole was a British-Jamaican nurse and entrepreneur. Some call her the Jamaican Florence Nightingale, as both cared for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856). After being refused for service by the British War Office, she followed the fighting herself, unofficially setting up refuge and medical assistance centers for soldiers. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and was voted the “greatest Black Briton” in 2004.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

Well known for her exploits during the American Civil War related to the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was a strong symbol of the abolitionist movement. Born in Maryland a slave in 1822, she later escaped and made more than a dozen successful return trips to free friends and family. During the Civil War, she served the North as a nurse and spy. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition during a time of war, liberating over 700 slaves during this time. As a nurse in Port Royal, she treated soldiers with dysentery and smallpox using remedies created with local plants and herbs as well as whatever she had available; she was truly a resource Jane-of-all-trades.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney, the second African American to work professionally as a nurse in the United States, was also one of the first African Americans to graduate from nursing school. She fought discriminatory practices in the medical profession and started the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses alongside Adah Thoms (in 1951 merging with the American Nurses Association). She set the standard for what formally educated African American nurses could achieve and made sure that they were able to do so given a racially prejudiced society. Since her death, she has been inducted into both the American Nurses Hall of Fame as well as the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)

Susie King Taylor, the first Black Army nurse, supported an all-Black Civil War volunteer infantry regiment (Union) from South Carolina. She was unpaid for her service and was the only African American at the time to write a memoir of her wartime experiences, entitled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. She taught many of the soldiers how to read and write during their off-duty hours and was the first African American to publicly teach at a school for former slaves in Georgia.

Jesse Sleet Scales (1865-1956)

Jesse Scales, the first public health nurse in the United States, is known today by many as one of the earliest health nurse pioneers. She became the first black district nurse at the Charity Organization Society, where she was tasked with educating and persuading the African American community in New York City to receive much-needed treatment for tuberculosis, something that plagued this community at the time. She also co-founded the Stillman House alongside Elizabeth Tyler, striving to advance poor health conditions in much of the urban Black community.

Adah Thoms fought for African American involvement in the Army Nurse Corps during WWI (1870-1943)
Adah Thoms, fought for African American involvement in the Army Nurse Corps during WWI (1870-1943)

Adah Belle Samuel Thoms (1870-1943)

Adah Thoms co-founded the the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (alongside Mary Mahoney and Martha Franklin), was director at the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York, and was an active proponent of African Americans serving as Red Cross nurses during World War I and eventually gaining the ability to join the Army Nurse Corps. Before her retirement in 1923, she had served as head nurse of a surgical ward, head nurse of a hospital, superintendent of nursing, and director of nursing.

Martha Minerva Franklin (1870-1968)

Martha Franklin was one of the earliest individuals to publicly campaign for racial equality in nursing. She also performed one of the first national studies on the status of Black nurses, where she sent letters to more than 500 nurses across the country to gain insight into their respective experiences and situations. She found that while African American nurses could join the American Nurses Association (at a national level), many state nursing associations remained closed off to African Americans. With the support of Adah Thomas and Mary Maloney, Franklin held the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in New York, the goal being to improve training, reduce racial inequality, and cultivate leaders for and within the Black nursing community. 

Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989)

Born in Barbados in 1890, Mabel Staupers moved with her parents to New York in 1903 at thirteen years old. She attended nursing school in Washington, DC, graduating with honors and working as a private duty nurse. She fought publicly for the inclusion of African American nurses in the Army and Navy during World War II. Because of her efforts, the Army Forces Nurses Corps opened its doors to all qualified applicants, regardless of race, in 1945. She also worked to combat the outbreak of tuberculosis among African Americans at the time by establishing the Booker T. Washington Sanatorium.

Estelle Massey Osborne (1901-1981)

Estelle Osborne (Riddle) was another major figure in fighting to eliminate the racial prejudices Black and African American nurses faced during this time. She was also notably the first African American to receive a master’s degree in nursing education in 1931. During World War II, she was named a consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service, during which time she worked with nursing schools to remove discriminatory policies. In 1945, she became the first African American instructor in the nursing department of New York University.

Lillian Holland Harvey (1912-1994)

Lillian Harvey received a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree in nursing by 1966. She became the director of nurse training at the Tuskegee School for Nurses in 1945, becoming the dean of the school in 1948. She turned the school’s diploma program into a baccalaureate one, the first of its kind in Alabama. She also worked to increase Black and African American nurses’ involvement in World War II efforts, creating more opportunities within the Army Nurse Corps.

Mary Elizabeth Carnegie (1916-2008) 

Mary Carnegie was a clinical educator and author in nursing. She was the first African American to act as a voting member on the board of a state (Florida) nursing association. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing as well as a doctorate in public administration. She spent much of her working years as a clinical instructor, also serving as professor and dean of the nursing school at Florida A&M University. She also acted as president of the American Academy of Nursing and was inducted into the American Nurses Association hall of fame. 

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)

As well as a nurse educator who served in the United States Army from 1955-1983, Hazel Johnson-Brown, was also the first African American female general in the Army and the first Black chief of the Army Nurse Corps. When she finally retired from the Army, she led the American Nurse Association’s governmental relations team and taught at George Mason University’s Center for Health Policy.

Dr. Betty Williams pioneer of nurse education (1929-present)
Dr. Betty Williams, pioneer of nurse education (1929-present)

Betty Smith Williams (1929-present)

Dr. Betty Smith Williams is a lifetime educator with over 50 years of teaching and research experience. She was the first African American nurse hired as an educator in higher education in the state of California. She was a professor at Mount Saint Mary’s College, UCLA, and California State Long Beach; Assistant Dean at the School of Nursing at UCLA; Dean and professor at the School of Nursing at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center; and, the Founding Dean at the School of Nursing at the American University of Health Sciences. She was also a co-founder and charter member of the National Black Nurses Association in 1971.

So, here’s to nurses—especially the incredible figures throughout history, some of which are mentioned above—and to the Year of the Nurse and Midwife! Let’s get out there and show the world just how much nurses are capable of! 

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