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ADVANCE Perspective: Nurses

Great Black Nurses in History

Published February 22, 2012 1:22 AM by Chuck Holt

As I search the Internet for information on the contributions of great African American nurses in history, I find myself wishing I had more time.

More time to learn more about people like Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN, (1845-1926), who in 1879 became America’s first African-American graduate nurse. According to the Bridgewater (MA) State University Office of Institutional Diversity website, Mahoney worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for many years before entering college and graduated at age 34. Through her hard work she would provide the inspiration for the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses which she co-founded in 1908, according to the school. To listen to an audio narrative of Mahoney’s biography, click here

More time to learn about the contributions of African-American nurses contribution in American armed conflicts, as detailed in “African American Army Nurse Corps Officers,” which is a fascinating account of their service on the U.S. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History website. From Civil War era heroines Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman; to black contract nurses who handled epidemics of the worst diseases like typhoid during the Spanish American War; to those who served in both World Wars; Korea; Vietnam; and the Gulf Wars, African-American nurses have risked their lives for their countrymen. And even they had to fight for the right to do it every step of the way! Read more here

More time to learn more about people like Esther McCready and Rosetta Sands, who in 1950 became the first black students at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. The story of their struggle to integrate the institution is presented in a documentary, “Nursing Tensions: Race Relations,” posted on YouTube in March 2011 by Chris Doucette, a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT. Watch the documentary here

And more time to learn about the many other great black nurses, including but certainly not limited to legendary Arkansas nurse-midwife Mamie Odessa Hale; and Jessie Sleet Scales, a nurse from rural Missouri who went on to transform public health in New York City in the early 20th century, to name just a few.  

Fortunately, although minorities remain underrepresented in nursing, great African-American nurse role models are easy to find.

Take for example, Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, FAAN, chief executive officer of the National League for Nursing since 2007. In 1996, she was elected for two terms as president of the American Nurses Association. Later, she became Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, the highest position so far held by any nurse in the U.S. government. And for 6 years she was general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, the largest union of professional nursing in the U.K.

But her accomplishments certainly didn't end there as you can plainly see by visiting the ADVANCE for Nurses website and typing her name into our search engine.

In the first chapter of the 2009 book, "African American Voices: Reflecting, Reforming, Reframing," Malone pays posthumous tribute to two pioneering African-American nurses who mentored her, "nurturing a vision that has informed her approach to leadership and authority" according to the publishers.

I think I’ll grab a copy take the time to learn more.

How about you? What great African-American nurse leaders do you admire most?


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