5 African-American Nurses Who Changed the Industry

NursingFebruary 07, 2020

Just a few decades ago, it was not uncommon for African-Americans who wanted to enter the medical field to face racial discrimination and inequality of educational opportunity.  Despite the challenges they faced, many of these Americans persevered and changed the field for the better. Here we honor several remarkable professionals who had the passion and strength, not only to realize their own dreams, but to forge a path for others who would follow in their footsteps. 

Mary Eliza Mahoney

While other African-Americans had worked as nurses before, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first to become a registered nurse, graduating from a New England professional nurse-training program in 1879. Because discrimination limited her options, Mahoney worked as a private nurse for wealthy families and dedicated her efforts to ending the inequalities that had impacted her career. 

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) to advocate for African-American nurses and increase their employment opportunities. 

In 1936, 10 years after her death, NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award, to honor those who make significant contributions in the advancement of equal opportunities in nursing for minority groups. When NACGN merged with the ANA in 1951 the award was continued and is considered to be one of the highest honors awarded to nurses today. In recognition of her 40-year career and her contributions to the field, in 1976 Mahoney was one of the first inductees into the ANA Nursing Hall of Fame. 

Mabel Keaton Staupers

Mabel Keaton Staupers immigrated to the United States from Barbados as a teenager. In 1914, she enrolled in the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., which today is Howard University College of Nursing. 

Upon graduating, Staupers worked as a private-duty nurse. She later joined African-American physicians Louis T. Wright and James Wilson as the director of nursing at the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium in New York, N.Y. Staupers’ research into the healthcare needs of residents of Harlem led to the founding of the Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.

In 1934, Staupers was named executive secretary of the NACGN where she would become instrumental in eliminating segregation in the military. Enlisting the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she created a campaign that attracted widespread public support and led to the Army and Navy allowing African-American nurses to serve in the Armed Forces Nurse Corps during World War II.

Estelle Massey Osborne

Estelle Massey Osborne was the first African-American nurse to earn a master’s degree and, in 1945, she became the first African-American professor at New York University. Throughout her career, Osborne fought to make sure that other African-American nurses had access to higher education. She was able to expand the acceptance rate for African Americans at a number of nursing schools and worked tirelessly to help lift the color ban in the U.S. Navy and Army.

Osborne served as president of the NACGN as well as on the ANA Board of Directors. She received the Mary Mahoney Award in 1946 for her work to broaden opportunities for African-American nurses. To further honor her work, in 1982 the Estelle M. Osborne Memorial Scholarship was established in her name to assist an African-American student who is pursuing a master’s degree in nursing.

Hazel Johnson-Brown

Hazel Johnson-Brown earned a nursing bachelor’s degree from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, and entered the U.S. Army in 1955, shortly after the segregation ban was removed. In 1979, she became the first female African-American brigadier general and also became head of the Army Nurse Corps.  

After retiring from the military, Johnson-Brown served as an assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Nursing and later as a professor at the George Mason University School of Nursing. She also worked to promote access to academic scholarships for ROTC nursing students and published the first Army Nurse Corps Standards of Practice. 

Betty Smith Williams 

Betty Smith Williams was the first African-American graduate of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, a prestigious institution at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. She later became the first African-American college-level teacher in the state of California. And she’s served as Assistant Dean of the UCLA School of Nursing, Dean of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s School of Nursing and Dean of the American University of Health Sciences’ School of Nursing. 

In 1971, Williams cofounded the National Black Nurse Association to improve healthcare opportunities for African-Americans. In 1998, she co-founded the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (NCEMNA), and today is its President Emerita. 

Make Your Mark

The opportunities for today’s nurses have been dramatically improved by the dedication and work of these five remarkable women and many more whose names may be lost to history. If you’re ready to make a positive impact, too, Fortis offers an associate degree in nursing as well as practical nursing programs. Schedule a tour at one of our campuses, today. Please visit the Nursing page on our website, or call (855) 436-7847 for more information.