Published on February 26, 2021

black nurses

Inspiration from Mary Eliza Mahoney

As we come to the end of Black History Month, I wanted to turn your attention for a few minutes to the story of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first Black woman to become a professional nurse in the United States.

Mary Elizabeth Mahoney was born in Boston on May 7, 1845. Mahoney’s parents were freed slaves who had moved up the coast from North Carolina, hoping to find a safer and more productive environment to start a family. Even though slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, discrimination and systemic racism impacted daily life in Boston, and the family was very poor. At age 10, Mary Elizabeth was one of the first Black children to attend the Phillips School in Boston, one of the first schools to accept students from all communities and become racially integrated.

Civil War broke out between the North and South in 1861 when Mahoney was 16. She began to hear about the important work of women serving as nurses for those who were wounded and suffering—women whose skill and bravery were combined with compassionate care and who were helping to define the then emerging profession of nursing.

She purposed to become a nurse. At age 18 she got a job at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, working as a cook, janitor, and laundress. The first school of nursing in the United States was started at the very hospital where she was working in 1872, and it became Mahoney’s goal to be admitted for study to become a nurse. An indication of the level of prejudice and discrimination she experienced where she worked and lived is that while the school would technically allow for one Black student per year, no Black student had ever been accepted. Mahoney was faithful and worked hard at her job, winning the trust of the nurses and physicians and occasionally assisting them in what would be considered nursing tasks.

After 15 years of employment at the hospital, Mary Eliza Mahoney was admitted as the first Black student in its school of nursing. It was a demanding and arduous course of study lasting 16 months, during which the students received instruction and experience in every aspect of care. The schedule and requirements were so demanding that only four students from the class of 40 graduated from the course as nurses. Mahoney was one of them, and thus became the first professionally certified Black woman to achieve this goal in the United States. Her success opened the way for more people of color to study and train as nurses. Today there are more than 275,000 Black RNs in the United States; Mary Eliza Mahoney broke the path and led the way.

This distinction did little to prevent racial discrimination against Black people in professional roles, and when she was not able to secure a position as a nurse in a hospital, Mahoney took up private duty nursing. She sought to distinguish her role as a professional from other persons employed in private homes, and she maintained a rigorous and professional practice.

In 1908, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). The NACGN became an important means for advocacy and representation of Black nurses. She continued to be active in this organization until her death from cancer in 1926. 

The NACGN became a part of the American Nurses Association in 1949.  Since 1936, the Mary Mahoney Award to recognize significant contributions to promoting integration in the field of nursing was established and is still awarded each year. Mary Eliza Mahoney was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

The life of Mary Eliza Mahoney inspires me. It is a testimony to the quiet and enduring impact that one person can have on the lives of those around them—and on the generations that follow. Her commitment to excellence in the nursing profession that she served so well is a powerful example of commitment, faithfulness, and perseverance.

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