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.

Career

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.

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