In honor of MLK day, here is a look at the lives of a group of truly amazing African American nurses who have left an indelible mark on the history of healthcare — not just in their own lifetimes but through their legacy, continue to touch countless lives to the present day.
These nurses were strong in the face of adversity, caring and giving in their careers, and performed an unforgettable service to their country. Today, and every day, we salute them.
Like Florence Nightingale, Seacole helped successfully change the medical care provided in the 19th century throughout Britain. She faced many hardships, including being denied entry into the same nursing group that Nightingale was a part of, more than likely because of the color of her skin.
Seacole had an unstoppable spirit. During the Crimean War she borrowed money to journey alone to Crimea to help wounded and injured soldiers. While there, she treated soldiers from both sides and was said to have relied on her knowledge of Jamaican herbal remedies and medicines. One of her greatest accomplishments is the creation of boarding houses where the injured could stay and rehabilitate in a safe and clean environment.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first registered African American nurse. She was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1845 and grew up wanting to be a nurse, even though the profession was still largely closed to women.
In order to make her case, she started volunteering time at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. This quickly turned into 15 years that she served as an unofficial nurse’s assistant. She went on to earn a degree that would help leverage her career. In 1879 at age 34, she graduated from nursing school after 16 months in a tiny class of 40 people. Not only was she the the only African American, but there were only three other female graduates.
Upon graduation, Mahoney served as a private duty nurse along the East Coast. She soon became a well-known member of the Nurses Associated Alumnae (ANA) as one of the only women of color. In 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), changing the path for many women who followed her.
We know her as the “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, of course, but did you know that she was also a nurse? After the war, she created a nursing home called The Harriet Tubman Home of the Aged. This became a haven for both the aged and poor.
Hazel Johnson-Brown is not remembered first as a nurse (though she was one), but as the woman who made military history as the first African American female general in 1979. Before all that, Johnson-Brown was a nursing student at Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she enrolled after being turned away from the West Chester School of Nursing.
After graduating in 1953, she worked at the Philadelphia Veteran’s Hospital. It was there that she honed her natural leadership abilities and decided to join the Army. What started as a two-year trial ended up spanning almost three decades of service.
As the first African American appointed as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Johnson-Brown commanded 7,000 male and female nurses in the Army National Guard and Army Reserves. She set policy and oversaw operations in eight Army medical centers, 56 community hospitals and 143 freestanding clinics in the United States, Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy and Panama.