It all started with the fight for equality for African Americans. Mary Eliza Mahoney was born to a family of freed slaves in the late 1840s. The scars of racism ran deep in her family. She eventually pursued a degree in nursing to help support the needs of her community. Black people were either outright denied medical care in the South or lacked access to higher quality care throughout the U.S.
Mahoney spent her entire life working to undo these wrongs. Her story speaks to the compassion and integrity of nurses everywhere.
The First Licensed Black Nurse
Mahoney was born in 1848 in the lead up to the Civil War. Her parents, who had been recently freed, moved to Boston, Massachusetts from North Carolina, where Mahoney learned about the struggle for racial equality. She attended Phillips School in Boston, one of the first integrated schools in the country.
She knew from an early age that she wanted to be a nurse, even though black women were barred from attending university or getting their nursing license. In her teens, she eventually started pitching in where she could at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
Over the course of 15 years, she took on some of the less glamorous roles at the facility, like washing clothes, cleaning rooms, and working in the kitchen, before ultimately becoming a nurse’s aide. This gave her the chance to learn the ins and outs of the nursing profession.
The New England Hospital for Women and Children also happened to be home to one of the first nursing schools in the U.S. At the age of 33, Mahoney finally enrolled in the school’s nursing program in 1878. The program lasted just 16 months, but it was nothing short of intense. Grueling coursework and long hours made it difficult for many women to earn their degrees.
But Mahoney never backed down. She became one of the first people to graduate from the school, making her the first licensed black nurse in the country. In all, just four students made it to graduation day in 1879 of the 42 that enrolled in the program in 1878.
After earning her license, Mahoney decided working in a public hospital wasn’t for her, considering all the discrimination she faced when dealing with patients and staff. So, she decided to go into private practice instead.
To earn a living, she often served patients from wealthy white families that lived along the East Coast. She was known for being patient and efficient, and for having an impeccable bedside manner.
Becoming a Leader in the Community
In the early days of nursing, the industry was just starting to organize, and Mahoney wanted to be involved. In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC), which eventually became the American Nurses Association (ANA). But, as one of the only black members, Mahoney felt the group wasn’t meeting the needs of the African American community.
To make her voice heard, she helped found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). During the organization’s first convention, she gave the opening speech. The members voted for her to be chaplain, which came with a lifetime membership.
As her practice matured, Mahone focused on caring for African Americans who were typically denied treatment. After several decades, Mahoney went on to become the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children in Long Island, NY.
She retired after 40 years in the nursing industry, but she never gave up the fight for equality. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, Mahoney was among the first women who registered to vote in Boston.
Mahoney passed away at the age of 80 in 1926 after a bout with breast cancer, but her legacy still resonates today.
In 1936, the NACGN founded the Mary Mahoney Award to honor everything she’s done for the nursing community. The award is reserved for providers who share her pioneering spirit by advocating for more integration in the field of medicine.
The AHA went on to induct Mahoney into its Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also added to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York in 1993.
Mahoney’s fight for equality paved the way for generations of nurses. Creating a more diverse workforce is essential to reducing health disparities among African Americans. Her work helped support a fairer, more equitable healthcare system that treats all patients with the respect they deserve.