8 Black Nurses Who Made History

From the Crimean War to the present, nurses of color have and continue to devote their lives to caring for others. Given that February is Black History Month, it’s the perfect time to celebrate eight Black nurses who changed history forever. However, this is only a sample of the myriad of amazing Black nurses who have helped shape and advance the nursing profession.  

Mary Jane Seacole (1805-1881)

Florence Nightingale (The Lady with the Lamp) wasn’t the only pioneer of nursing practice. There was Mary Jane Seacole (The Creole with the Tea Mug), the most renowned free Black nurse of the 19th century.

While she didn’t have formal training as a nurse, everything she learned came from her mother, a well-known “healer” in Kingston, Jamaica, where they lived.

Mostly known for her work as a nurse-heroine during the Crimean War, Seacole also treated patients in Constantinople, Balaclava, Cuba, Haiti, the Bahamas, Panama, and London. Not to mention, she was on the front lines of the Cholera outbreaks in Jamaica and Panama in the 1850s.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

Mostly known for her work as an abolitionist and a fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was also a Union Army spy, scout, and nurse during the Civil War.

Knowledgeable in local roots to treat diseases, she would use remedies such as boiling cranesbill and lily roots to make a bitter-tasting brew to treat malignant fever, smallpox, and other infectious diseases. Her healing powers became legendary among soldiers.

After the war ended, Tubman established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, New York, on a property adjacent to her own and helped care for residents until her death in 1913.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” 

—Harriet Tubman

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

As a teen, Mary Eliza Mahoney knew she wanted to become a nurse, so she spent 15 years working in various roles at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She worked as a janitor, cook, washerwoman, and nurse’s aide—an opportunity that allowed her to learn a great deal about nursing.

The hospital also operated one of the first nursing schools in the United States. So, in 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney became a student in the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. Of the 42 students who entered the program, only four graduated. Mahoney was among them, making her the first African American in the United States to earn a professional nursing license.

Mahoney spent 40 years in the nursing profession. She served as a private nurse caring for individual clients, joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (now the American Nurses Association), and co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN).

Adah Belle Samuels Thoms (1870-1943)

While Adah Belle Samuels Thoms was named the assistant superintendent of nurses at Lincoln Hospital in New York in 1906, she was the hospital’s acting director for nearly 20 years. The hospital failed to give her the title because of her race.

In response to the racism faced by nurses of color, Thoms helped organize the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses, serving as its president from 1916 to 1923. Also, during World War I, she successfully campaigned to have Black nurses admitted into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. And finally, in 1929, she published the first book to chronicle the experiences of Black nurses in America.

Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)

Hazel Johnson-Brown was a pioneering military nurse who joined the Army in 1955—seven years after President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military.

Following her enlistment, she served on the female medical-surgical ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and subsequently on an obstetrical unit at the 8169th Hospital in Japan.

Over the years, she rose through the ranks, impressing her superiors with her skill in the operating room. Then, in 1979, she made military history when she was named brigadier general and the 16th chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She was the first Black woman to hold these posts.

Also, while in the military, Johnson-Brown was twice named Army nurse of the year and received the

Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal.

After retiring from the Army, Johnson-Brown headed the American Nurses Association’s government relations unit and directed George Mason University’s Center for Health Policy.

Dr. Bernardine Lacey (1932-2021)

A renowned nurse leader, Dr. Bernardine Lacey was one of the first Black students admitted into Georgetown University, where she earned her BSN in 1969. She went on to serve as the founding director of the Western Michigan University Bronson School of Nursing

While racism left an indelible mark on her professional growth as a nurse, including roles as an educator, political advocate, and researcher, she remained a trailblazer and advocate within the field. So much so, the American Academy of Nursing named Lacey a “Living Legend” in 2014.

Eddie Bernice Johnson (1935-present)

Eddie Bernice Johnson is the first registered nurse elected to the U.S. Congress. She is currently serving her 15th term representing the 30th Congressional District of Texas.

Considered one of the most effective legislators in Congress, Johnson is credited with authoring and co-authoring more than 177 bills signed into law by the President of the United States.

Johnson is also the highest-ranking Texan on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the first African American and woman to chair the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

Dr. Ernest Grant (1958-present)

Dr. Ernest Grant is the 36th president of the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the first male to fill this role. He is also a well-known and highly regarded burn-care and fire-safety expert.

In 2002, he received a Nurse of the Year Award from President George W. Bush for treating 9/11 burn victims from the World Trade Center site.

Then, in 2013, Grant received the B.T. Fowler Lifetime Achievement Award from the North Carolina Fire and Life Safety Education Council.

“The Code of Ethics obligates nurses to be allies and to advocate and speak up against racism, discrimination, and injustice. This is non-negotiable. Racism is a longstanding public health crisis that impacts both mental and physical health.”  

—Ernest Grant

Without a doubt, these eight Black nurses are incredible figures who made history. However, they’re not the only ones worthy of celebrating. Let’s also honor the countless other Black nurses past and present who have helped advance the profession.    

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