The first African-American Professional Nurse

Mary Mahoney made history as the first African-American Professional Nurse, yet many do not know her name. A strong woman, Mahoney, became a nurse despite severe societal limitations placed on black and minority women. She braved discrimination and worked toward equality for black and minority nurses and women.

Image of graduate nurse Mary Eliza Mahoney--she made history as the first African-American Professional Nurse

Early Life

A pair of freed slaves traveled from North Carolina to Boston in the 1840s. Their daughter, Mary Eliza Mahoney, was born in the spring of 1845 in the free state of Massachusetts. Experts dispute her exact birthdate and birthplace.

At ten, Mahoney went to one of the best schools in the city, the Phillips School.

The Phillips School, named for father of abolitionist Wendell Philips, became one of Boston’s first integrated school in 1855.

Dreams of Being a Nurse

In her teens, Mahoney realized she wanted to be a nurse. She started working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (NEHWC). She worked as a cook, janitor, a laundress, and a nurse’s aide.

NEHWC operated one of America’s first nursing schools. But white hospital-based nursing schools routinely excluded African American nursing students. The only exceptions were when a select few African Americans were admitted to meet “rigidly enforced institutional quotas in what amounted to de facto segregation.”

Nursing School

In 1878, Mahoney entered NEHWC’s nursing school. She was 33. One of two black students in a class of forty-two students, Mahoney worked hard. The rigorous sixteen month program required sixteen-hour days. Students received medical, surgical, and maternal health training. After daylong classes and lectures, students worked on hospital wards or in patient homes on private duty. In their free time they had to do chores like laundry, ironing, and cleaning. Mahoney was one of four students who completed the course. She graduated in 1879, the first African-American woman in the United States, to earn a professional nursing license.


Being black limited Mahoney’s career as a professional nurse. Paid less than their white counterparts, black nurses could only work as private duty nurses or in black-only hospitals.

She worked as a private duty nurse. Her clientele were mostly wealthy white families who knew her as a patient, efficient, and gentle nurse. Families from New Jersey, Washington DC, and North Carolina requested her services.

In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the U.S. And Canada now known as the American Nurses Association. But black nurses were not always welcomed.

She joined, possibly co-founded, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. At the organization’s first national convention in 1909, she called out the inequalities in nursing education and asked for a demonstration at the New England Hospital. The convention elected her chaplain and gave her a lifetime membership.

Group portrait of attendees at the first convention of the National Association of Graduate Nurses
Group portrait of attendees at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Boston, 1909, Public Domain

For years, Mahoney recruited women of color to join NACGN. In 1910, there were about 2,400 black nurses in the United States. Twenty years later, that number more than doubled.

From 1911 to 1912, she served as director of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Kings Park, Long Island, New York.

After more than thirty years of caring for others, Mary Mahoney retired. Mahoney never married, but she continued fighting for women’s equality. She was one of the first women to register to vote in 1920.

Death & Legacy

In 1926 at 81, Mary Mahoney died of breast cancer. They buried her in Everett, Massachusetts.

The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses created the Mary Mahoney Award to honor those who advanced minority groups in nursing. The NACGN merged with the American Nurse’s Association (ANA) in 1951. The ANA continued the Mary Mahoney Award. There is also an annual Mary Mahoney Medal given for excellence in nursing.

They inducted Mary Mahoney into the American Hospital Association’s Hall of fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

There are a health care centers and educational programs named after her as well.

If you wish to learn more about Mary Eliza Mahoney, read Mary Eliza Mahoney and the Legacy of African-American Nurses by Susan Muaddi Darraj or Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurse by Adah Thoms.

Her gravesite became a memorial site thanks to the fundraising efforts of the 1968 winner of the Mahoney Award, Helen S. Miller. They completed the memorial in 1973.

In Conclusion

She made a difference. She made history as the first African American Professional Nurse. How difficult must it have been? But Mary Mahoney didn’t waiver and she didn’t stop. She’s a inspiration to us all.

Mary McLeod Bethune Lights the Way Even After Death

Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary woman, an educator, and a civil rights leader. A child of former slaves, she grew from poverty and ignorance into a woman who changed her world. Most of all, she lights the way even after death.

portrait photograph of middle aged Mary Mcleod Bethune sitting in a chair and looking at the camera with a confident look on her face that says she lights the way

Early Years

Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves. Most of her siblings had been born into slavery. Born on a rice and cotton farm near Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875. Mary’s mother, Patsy, worked for her former master. Her father, Samuel McLeod, worked the farm (house pictured below).

photograph of small cabin where Mary Mcleod Bethune grew up to light the way. Two young women wearing long skirts and hats stand outside the cabin

The family worked hard to buy the farm. They put Mary in the fields when she was five years old. By the time she was nine, she could pick two-hundred-fifty pounds of cotton per day.

As a child, Mary would accompany her mother to deliver the laundry to the “white people.” One day, curious about the white children’s toys, she picked up a book. The white child snatched it away from her because she couldn’t read. She decided she would learn to read.


A one-room black schoolhouse opened in Mayesville. Mary entered school at ten. She walked several miles each day (some say 4 miles) to attend the Trinity Mission School, run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. Since she was the only McLeod child to attend school, she tried to teach her siblings after school.

She received a scholarship and continued her education at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls (now Barber-Scotia College), a boarding school in Concord, North Carolina. In 1893, she graduated from Scotia.

From there she spent two years at the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. She hoped to go to Africa as a missionary. But no church would sponsor her. Undaunted, she became a teacher. Her belief that that education provided the key to racial advancement led her on a journey to light the way.


Mary worked at her former elementary school in Sumter County for a short time. In 1896, she began teaching at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia.

Inspired by Lucy Craft Laney’s educational philosophy, Mary developed a similar philosophy. After a year at Haines, the Presbyterian mission transferred Mary to the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina.

Family Life

She met Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher, at Kindell and married him in 1898. They had a son, Albert, in 1899.

Seeking better economic opportunities, they moved to Georgia, then to Palatka, Florida, and in 1904 to Daytona, Florida.

There she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls.

Her husband left her and her son in 1907. They never divorced. On the 1910 Census record, Mary McLeod Bethune listed herself as a widow. Albertus died in 1918.


Photograph of Mary McLeod Bethune and a long line of her female students

In October 1904, Mary rented a house next to Daytona’s dump. The house became the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. She made desks out of discarded crates. Charities and parents of her students helped her get other supplies. She started teaching five girls aged six to twelve, and her son Albert.

They made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood. By the end of the year, she was teaching thirty students. The school grew to more than 250 students.

In 1931, the Methodist Church helped the merger of her school with the boys’ Cookman Institute, forming the Bethune-Cookman College, a coeducational junior college.

By 1941, the college had developed a four-year curriculum and achieved full college status.

In 2006, they added the first Master’s degree program. The College achieved university-status in 2007, officially becoming Bethune-Cookman University.


Mary worked tirelessly to improve black lives. A few of her accomplishments include:

Her impressive accomplishments are too many to detail in this blog post. Read more about how Mary lights the way even after death at or or her books and papers.


photograph of the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune that includes a boy and a girl silohetted against the sun that appears to be a white ball the boy will catch

Mary worked to better the lives of her fellow blacks, particularly women, her entire life. She died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955.

She was the first African-American to have a national monument dedicated to her on public land in Washington DC.

Postage stamps, Schools, public parks, and streets have honored her. And Bethune-Cookman University continues to educate young people.

The Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune

Her last words shine a light forward. These words are a tiny sample of what she said her legacy was:

I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful.…
I LEAVE YOU HOPE.… Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.
I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocks by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment….
I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour….
I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force….
I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible….
I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization….
I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth, for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world….
• Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility — these are needed today as never before.

From the last will and testament of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

In Conclusion

In my humble opinion, Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary woman whose greatest legacy was how she lights the way even after death. Read her full last will and testament to appreciate the impact of the light she shines. If you enjoyed this post, please let me know in the comments below. You can read other posts on strong women including Hattie Canty and Marie Van Brittan Brown.

(Photo Credits: 1. Portrait: Brawley, Benjamin Griffith (1919) Women of Achievement, Chicago: Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, Public Domain, 2. Family home: from the Florida State Archives Photographic Collection. Retrieved October 22, 2007..Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot, Public Domain, 3.Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school (ca. 1905) Public Domain, 4. Statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in Lincoln Park Image=Flickr user Ezra Wolfe – Sculpture=Berks, Robert, Public Domain.)

The Maid Who Fought Back

Hattie Canty rose from an Alabama girl to a maid to an African-American labor activist. She was the maid who fought back, the maid who eventually ensured that Las Vegas workers in the hospitality business made a living wage. 

Image states Hettie Canty, The Maid Who Fought Back with an illustration of her strike sign: No contract, no peace

Early Life

Hattie Canty was born in 1934 in  St. Stephens, Alabama. She graduated high school and married. They divorced. A single mother with two children, she moved to San Diego and took a job as a cook, then as a private maid.

Las Vegas

She remarried in 1961, moved to Las Vegas, and had eight more children. Her husband worked for Silver State Disposal. She stayed home to care for her ten children. By 1972 she returned to work, this time at the Thunderbird Hotel.

Her husband died of lung cancer in 1975. And then she was a single mother again, this time with eight children still at home. She worked as a janitor, a maid, and then in 1979 got a job as a maid at Maxim Casino. In 1987, she earned a promotion to the better paying job of a uniformed attendant.

The Union

She joined the Culinary Workers Union 226, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The union helped her get health benefits and a pension. And she learned to fight for her rights. After she discovered that six hotels didn’t have union representation she became more active. She walked picket lines on her days off. And she refused to take a scab to work, even if he was her son’s friend.

In 1984 they elected her to the executive board. That year, Local 226 staged a 75 day walkout on Las Vegas Casinos. They wanted better insurance for culinary workers… and they got it. Union organizers and members noticed Canty’s dedication and leadership skills.

Union President 

They elected Canty union president in 1990. Canty helped dissolve racial animosities in the ethnically diverse union and convinced members that solidarity in the labor organization could bring about tangible gains. She headed the union when 550 culinary workers walked off the job at the staunchly anti-union Frontier casino in 1991. The protest against unfair labor practices by the casino’s owners became the longest labor strike in American history. It ended six and a half years later when the Frontier’s new owners settled with the union.


She was re-elected president of the union in 1993 and 1996 by landslides. Canty sought living wages for employees so they could support themselves and their families. She worked to integrate the union and get minorities into higher level jobs. And she went to jail at least six times while striking.

 “…coming from Alabama, this seemed like the civil rights struggle… the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.”

Hattie Canty

In 1983, she established the Culinary Training Academy in 1993. It continues to teach the skills needed to work in the hospitality industry.


Hattie Canty died in Las Vegas in 2012. Her legacy includes thousands of people of color who can make a living wage and send their children to college. She was proudest of the Culinary Training Academy, which still trains workers today.

She Fought Back

Hattie Canty was the maid who fought back against unfair labor practices. She fought for her rights, for minority rights, for hospitality workers’ rights. Despite her lack of education, despite racial prejudices, despite hardships—she made a difference. She was a strong woman. Had you heard of Hattie Canty before?