In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to recognize the achievements of African American nurses. Throughout history, their contributions were often minimized or undocumented. Countless names and accomplishments have gone unnoticed, unmentioned, or completely unknown.
For this reason, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before us. It’s time to honor those nurses of color who have made contributions to the nursing profession. Here are five Black women whose intelligence, persistence, and determination changed nursing.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
Sojourner Truth was an extraordinary woman and one of the first to make meaningful contributions to the nursing profession. Born into slavery, her given name was Isabella Baumfree. Early in life, she faced horrific tragedies as a slave. Her life is worth reading about, but too much and too heavy to squeeze in a blog post.
She escaped slavery in 1826 and was introduced to Christianity by the family who took her in. In 1843, she took on a new name: Sojourner Truth. She felt it reflected her purpose and mission from God, to travel and spread the truth. She spent much of her time speaking out publicly for civil rights and women’s suffrage.
During the Civil War, Truth helped the Union Army by raising monetary aid, sending supplies, and providing care for soldiers. Then, during Reconstruction, Truth fought to help the slaves that were freed. She went before Congress to advocate for funding and nursing education programs for Blacks. She worked closely with the government, and the President appointed her to the National Freedman’s Relief Association. At the Freedman’s Hospital, Truth nursed patients and worked for better sanitary conditions. Although she is most recognized for fighting slavery, Truth had an early influence on the nursing profession that cannot be forgotten.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
Mary Eliza Mahoney is known as America’s first Black nurse. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years before she was accepted into the professional training program there.
Think nursing schools today are tough? New England Hospital’s program required 16-hour shifts, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK. Only four students graduated from the original class of 42. Mahoney made it, and is now recognized as the first Black licensed nurse.
She became active in the profession right away, advocating for racial equality in nursing. She was one of the first Black members of the ANA and helped form the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). She worked tirelessly to elevate the profession of nursing and give opportunities to individuals of color. The ANA’s Mary Mahoney Award is considered one of the highest recognitions for nurses today.
Martha Minerva Franklin (1870-1968)
Martha Minerva Franklin was among the first racial activist in the nursing profession. In 1897, she was the only Black graduate in her class from the Philadelphia Women’s Hospital Training School for Nurses. After graduation, she became a private duty nurse and worked with many of the city’s Black social organizations.
In 1906, she became interested in the experiences of African American nurses. So, she sent 500 letters to Black nurses, superintendents, and nursing organizations about their professional experiences. She found out that although the ANA was technically open to anyone, many state-level organizations banned Black nurses from joining. Since the ANA required state-level membership, many Black nurses could not join. So, Franklin sent another 1500 letters to black nurses, calling for a meeting. Fifty-two nurses attended this first meeting, which led to the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN).
Their motto was “Not for ourselves, but for humanity.”
Franklin was elected president of the NACGN, which worked for racial equality in the profession of nursing. The group’s most notable work led to the desegregation of the ANA, and the United States (US) Nurse Corps.
Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989)
Mabel Keaton Stampers played a crucial role in desegregating the US military. She graduated with honors from the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, DC. After graduation, she worked as a private duty nurse and served in the NACGN.
During World War II, the military restricted Black nurses with quotas and segregation practices. Staupers advocated for equality for nurses in the military and even worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to convince the president and Congress that we needed Black nurses. Due in part to her work, the Army opened the Armed Forces Nurse Corps to all, regardless of race, in 1948.
Later in her career, Staupers opened the Booker T. Washington Sanitorium to fight the Tuberculosis outbreak among African Americans.
Estelle Massey Osborne-Ridley (1901-1981)
Estelle Massey Osborne was accepted to the first nursing class at St. Louis City Hospital. After graduation, she became the head nurse. Then, a few years later, she moved to New York City. There she taught nursing at the Harlem School of Nursing and the Lincoln School of Nursing. In 1931, Osborne became the first African American to earn a Master’s degree in Nursing Education. In 1945, she became the first Black instructor at New York University.
Her passion for empowering a new generation of minority nurses through education changed the profession of nursing today. She was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1984.
We hope you enjoyed this look at five influential African American nurses in our past. Perhaps it will inspire you to dive deeper and find out more about our history. Or maybe these women will stir you to changes in your own sphere of influence. The take-away for everyone is that strong and courageous individuals have sacrificed for the profession we know today. What does the nursing profession mean to you today and how you can leave a legacy for nurses of tomorrow?