The history of black women in the nursing profession is a story of women of color fighting to overcome racial, social and economic injustice. In their efforts to obtain appropriate and professional health care education, these women also sought to acquire professional acceptance from their white counterparts.
One of the earliest women of color to serve as a caregiver was Mary Seacole, who was born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. She had no formal training as a nurse but she learned all she knew from her mother, who was a well-known “healer” in the Kingston area. As a child, Seacole watched her mother work, took in all the knowledge she could and practiced whatever she learned on her doll. If there were a disease prevalent in Kingston, her poor doll would “contract” it. After a while Seacole extended her caregiving to dogs, cats and other animals.
Eventually she felt that she had learned enough and could move on to treating human patients. But because of her race, she would never get that opportunity. Seacole was forced to go to Europe in order to receive professional training and recognition. In 1856, during the Crimean War, she established a facility called the British Hotel at her own expense to provide caregivers, medical attention, food and comfortable sleeping areas for the sick and wounded.
Another woman of color who served as a nurse during wartime was the famous Civil War nurse, Susie King Taylor. She was born in 1848, a slave under Georgia law. It was illegal for slaves to be educated, but she and 30 other children were taught how to read and write by her grandmother’s friend Mrs. Woodhouse, a free woman of color. As a teenager, King began to teach other “colored” children.
King gained her freedom when she was about 14 years old. Her uncle decided to take the family and get away, so they jumped into a boat passing Georgia’s Fort Pulaski. They were captured by Union forces and were enlisted into the newly formed regiment of black soldiers. King was appointed laundress of the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops, but her duties began to expand because of her nursing skills and her ability to read and write. Susie King Taylor documented her experiences as a teacher, laundress and nurse during the conflict in a book entitled Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops. She died in 1912.
These women were not afforded the opportunity to receive formal nursing training, but they did open doors for other nurses of color who would follow in their footsteps, including the first African-American woman to graduate from an accredited nursing institution, Mary Eliza Mahoney.
A Legacy of Leadership
Mahoney was born in Dorchester, Mass., in 1845. She began her interest in nursing as a teenager. She also found employment as a teenager at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. For 15 years she served the hospital in a variety of capacities, including cook, janitor and washerwoman. She eventually gained the respect and confidence of hospital officials and was allowed to work as a nurse’s assistant, even though she did not have formal training.
However, in 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney was admitted as a nursing student in the same hospital where she had devoted almost two decades of service. During her matriculation, the institution’s policy was that only one African-American student and one Jewish student could be enrolled in each training class. In 1879, out of 42 students who started the program with her, Mahoney was one of only four students who completed the rigorous course.
After graduating, Mahoney registered in the Nurses Directory at the Massachusetts Medical Library. This acknowledged her as a formally trained nurse. She left the New England Hospital for Women and Children and began working as a private duty nurse who traveled and provided medical assistance to patients in the New England area.
In 1896 Mahoney became a member of the predominately white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (later known as the American Nurses Association). Because of racial discrimination, especially in the South, the organization rarely admitted African-American nurses. This inspired Mahoney to co-found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. Two other important founding members were Martha Franklin and Adah Belle Samuel Thoms. Among the association’s goals were to advocate for more opportunities for formal training for African-American nurses and to eventually integrate the nursing profession.
A year after its founding, Mahoney gave the welcoming address at the NACGN’s first convention. In 1911, while working as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children in Kings Park, Long Island, Mahoney also served the association as its national chaplain. That same year, the NACGN awarded her a lifetime membership.
Mahoney, who never married, retired in 1922 but continued to participate in the NACGN’s activities until her death from breast cancer in 1926. Because of her contributions and her leadership in fighting for racial integration in the nursing profession, in 1936 the association created an award in her honor. When the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the ANA continued to bestow the Mary Mahoney award. Fifty years after her death, Mahoney was inducted into the ANA’s Nursing Hall of Fame. In 1993 she was inducted into National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Although white nurses such as Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton are celebrated throughout history, these “Black Nightingales” also deserve to be acknowledged. Their contributions to the medical and nursing professions are just as worthy of recognition.
1. Seacole, Mary and Andrews, William. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (Oxford University Press, 1988).
2. Hine, Darlene Clark; Brown, Elsa Barkley and Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (Eds.). Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Volumes 1 and 2 (Indiana University Press, 1993).