Today, nursing is a profession that acknowledges the importance of diversity in its workforce. But it wasn’t always this way. Going back to the 1800s, pioneers in diversity struggled to break new ground and lay the foundations for our current multi-cultural labor pool.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African-American woman to become a registered nurse in the United States. Her parents were freed slaves who moved north after the Civil War, in pursuit of better opportunities for themselves and their three children. In Boston, Mahoney attended one of the very first integrated schools in the nation, and decided as a teenager that she wanted to be a nurse. She worked at a local hospital for 15 years, as a cook, a housekeeper, and finally as an unofficial nursing assistant before she was finally admitted to a nursing school in 1878 at the age of 33. She graduated the following year and went on to prosper in a predominately white society, fighting against racial discrimination in nursing along the way.
In the early 1900s, Mahoney was troubled that the major professional nursing organization (which later became the ANA) did not welcome black members. In response, she met with other visionary black nurses who all worked together to found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), an organization devoted to diversity and excellence in nursing. Mahoney spoke at the organization’s first convention in 1909.
After Mahoney died in 1926, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney award in her honor. When the NACGN finally merged with the ANA in 1951, the award continued and still exists today.
Martha Minerva Franklin (1870-1968)
Martha Minerva Franklin was another African-American nurse who actively campaigned for racial equality within the profession. She attended the meeting of black nurses that lead to the NACGN being formed in 1908, and became the organization’s first president. By 1920, the NACGN had 500 members. The organization’s mission statement stressed that black nurses must strive to meet the same professional requirements as all nurses, so that a racial double-standard could not be claimed to exist. By 1951 it had made so much progress in breaking down discrimination that the NACGN dissolved and its members were welcomed into the ANA. In 1976, Franklin was inducted into the ANA’s Hall of Fame.
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms (1870-1943)
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms was inducted the same year as Franklin. Thoms was the first treasurer of the NACGN and went on to become the president of the organization in 1916. During World War I, Thoms actively campaigned for the American Red Cross to admit black nurses. She also established a national job registry to help minority nurses who were seeking better employment opportunities.
Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989)
Mabel Keaton Staupers was a Barbados-born nurse who emigrated to the U.S. at age 13 with her parents and attended nursing school in Washington, DC. Her exposure to segregation and the dehumanizing conditions that minorities were often subjected to led to her resolve to break down barriers. She helped to organize the first inpatient facility for black tuberculous patients in Harlem and worked tirelessly to improve overall community health.
Staupers also worked to promote the status of African-American nurses, becoming the first paid executive secretary of the NACGN in 1934, and later becoming president of the organization. During World War II, she advocated for and won the fight to allow black nurses in the Army and Navy nursing corps. She was inducted into the ANA’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)
Johnson-Brown was the first African-American to be appointed as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps in the U.S. In 1979 she made military history when the Army promoted her to the position of Brigadier General. Johnson-Brown also faced discrimination early on: she was denied entrance to a Pennsylvania nursing school because she was black, but moved to New York City and enrolled in the Harlem School of Nursing.
Today, the medical profession as a whole widely recognizes that minority care providers are essential to providing quality care to a diverse population. American Sentinel University supports nursing diversity on every level, across racial and gender lines. We are an equal-opportunity educational facility, offering a variety of online nursing degrees.
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