10 African-American Nurses Who Changed the Course of History!

Associates Degree Nursing in Guide


Nursing has come a long way over the years, and its evolution – at least politically – owes much to the exceptional service, advocacy and determination of African Americans in the profession. From the inspirational Harriet Tubman to the feisty Mary Eliza Mahoney, these 10 women stand as shining examples to any aspiring nurse. Through their dedication, excellence and strength of spirit, these trailblazing African-American women broke down racial barriers in the nursing profession and truly changed the course of history.

10. Susie King Taylor


Susie King Taylor was an exceptional woman with many talents. During the American Civil War, she worked as a volunteer for the Union Army, handling diverse tasks such as laundering clothes, teaching soldiers how to read and write, and making custard using turtle eggs. She also knew how to handle a musket and was a pretty good shot.

But primarily Taylor was a nurse – and a daring one at that. When some of the soldiers were quarantined after coming down with smallpox, she crept into their tents and nursed them back to health, even though this was not permitted. “I was not the least afraid of the smallpox,” she said. It was the men she cared about. As she stated years afterward, “All this time my interest in the boys in blue had not abated. I was still loyal and true, whether they were black or white.”

Later, Taylor wrote an autobiographical account of her experiences titled Reminiscences of My Life In Camp with the 33d US Colored Troops. In the book, she reflects on the bad treatment of African Americans and hopes for a time when different races might live together in harmony.

9. Mabel Keaton Staupers


Born in 1890, Mabel Keaton Staupers was no stranger to racial discrimination. She encountered segregated nurse training programs and found that African Americans were excluded from major organizations. Inexcusable as it was, Staupers didn’t let prejudice hold her back. Instead, she became an imposing figure in the fight for racial equality and played a vital part in the acceptance of all ethnicities into the US Army and the American Nurses Association.

The American Nurses Association website states that Staupers was “a leader of vision, determination and courage” who “helped break down color barriers in nursing at a time when segregation was entrenched in this country.” And thanks to her efforts, “black nurses were accepted into the educational, institutional, and organizational structure of American nursing.”

8. Betty Smith Williams


Betty Smith Williams grew up in South Bend, Indiana and says that she “saw very early on how activism and collectivism could impact change.” Williams took this philosophy with her into the nursing world and became the first black individual to wear the cap of Cleveland, Ohio’s Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. She also went on to become the first black person to teach at either a college or university in the entire state of California.

But perhaps Williams’ most groundbreaking achievement was co-founding the National Black Nurses Association in 1971. The Association is dedicated to providing black nurses with the impetus to act collectively and to improving general healthcare for African Americans. Williams became the seventh president of the association and says, “What satisfies me most is that through my work, and the work of my peers, we have stimulated others to find avenues in nursing.”

7. Estelle Massey Osborne


Born in 1901, Estelle Massey Osborne became the first black woman to earn a master’s degree in nursing. But this isn’t the only fact that distinguishes her. Throughout her career, Osborne dedicated herself to improving the options available to black nurses across the country. Her goal was to ensure that black nurses received just as high-caliber an education as their white counterparts.

In 1943, Osborne became a consultant for the National Nursing Council for War Services and helped to get the color ban lifted from nursing in the US Army and Navy. She also assisted in almost doubling, within two years, the number of training schools that would accept black students.

Then in 1945 she became the first black member of New York University’s teaching faculty and used her position to continue to fight for black nurses’ rights. Osborne’s legacy lives on in the form of the Estelle Massey Osborne Scholarship for registered black nurses interested in studying a nursing master’s degree full time.

6. Lillian Holland Harvey


Registered nurse Lillian Holland Harvey is best known for her work in education. She became Dean of Tuskegee University School of Nursing in 1948 and held the position for nearly 30 years. During her time as Dean, Harvey was pivotal in establishing and offering Alabama’s first Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. The program offered students a strong education, complete with hands-on hospital experience – both locally and out of state.

Harvey believed that everyone deserved professional acknowledgement, regardless of his or her background. Even the harsh segregation rules of the 1940s didn’t deter her, and she went on to achieve a number of honors. Harvey’s graduates say that she impacted their lives strongly and led by example. She showed them the importance of advancing their education, striking a balance between work and family life, and finding ways to get involved with their local communities.

5. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown


When Hazel W. Johnson-Brown tried to gain admission to a local hospital, she was told, “We’ve never had a black person in our program, and we never will.” Fortunately, despite the racial obstacles in her path, Johnson-Brown persevered and did become a nurse.

She studied at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in 1950. She then joined the army, working in Japan and later Korea during her service. In the 1960s, she also trained Vietnam-bound surgical nurses.

Johnson-Brown’s abilities in the operating theater led to her climbing the ranks in the army. She eventually became the first black woman to be promoted to brigadier general and the first to head the 7,000-strong US Army Nurse Corps.

As well as her Harlem diploma, Johnson-Brown achieved a nursing bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and an educational administration PhD. And to top it all off, she was awarded a number of distinguished military decorations in addition to being named Army Nurse of the Year twice.

4. Sojourner Truth


Isabella Baumfree – better known by her self-given name Sojourner Truth – was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York in 1797. And although she would later gain fame as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was originally a nurse who served a family named the Dumonts. She was promised her freedom a year before the 1827 Emancipation Act, but when her owner changed his mind, she fled with her young daughter Sophia in 1826.

In her later years, Truth worked at the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington D.C., where she strove to improve the cleanliness and quality of care. But perhaps most notably, Truth used her strong voice and eloquent speeches to urge Congress to finance training programs for nurses.

In an age before any formal nurse training existed, Truth’s perception and advocacy of the need for such education remain truly legendary. And all this from a nine-year-old girl who was thrown in with a flock of sheep for $100.

3. Harriet Tubman


Harriet Tubman was an all-round inspirational figure who risked her life countless times to free others from the same slavery into which she had been born. But the 300 or so slaves she led to freedom weren’t the only people’s lives she changed. Tubman served as a nurse during the American Civil War and used her knowledge of herbal medicine to treat wounded soldiers on the island of Port Royal off the coast of South Carolina.

Using traditional remedies, Tubman cured many soldiers of dysentery and smallpox. And because she didn’t contract smallpox herself, stories spread that she had been blessed by God.

Tubman’s work was so outstanding that one Union general pushed for Congress to give her a pension for her efforts. After the war was over, Tubman continued to nurse others and helped found a home for the elderly.

2. Adah Belle Samuel Thoms


Adah Belle Samuel Thoms was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1870. In 1905, she graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, where the following year she became acting director – a position she held for nearly two decades. During this period, it was extremely rare for black people to hold such high-level roles, but Thoms handled it with excellence. Even so, racial prejudice stopped her from officially being named director.

Thoms was a crusader who worked tirelessly for the rights of professional black nurses. She was instrumental in setting up the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and strove for the acceptance of black nurses into the American Red Cross. She also worked for equal opportunities for nurses in the US Army Nurse Corps and even spoke to President Warren G. Harding regarding the issue – offering him and his wife roses and letting him know that 2,000 African-American nurses were waiting to do their bit for America.

1. Mary Eliza Mahoney


Mary Eliza Mahoney may have been small, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a pioneer who refused to succumb to the restrictions imposed by racial prejudice.

In 1879, Mahoney became the first registered black nurse when she graduated from a training program in New England. As a student, she had endured 16 hours of backbreaking labor every day, seven days a week. The program was so difficult that only three students out of the entire class of 40 graduated. And Mahoney was one of them (along with two white nurses).

Effectively, Mahoney proved that African Americans could not only become nurses, but that they could do the job with excellence, compassion and efficiency. The world of nursing would never be the same.

Mahoney went on to co-establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. And in recognition of her contribution to the nursing profession, in 1936 the American Nurses Association instituted the Mary Mahoney Award, to be awarded to nurses who go above and beyond when it comes to integration and equal opportunities for minorities in the field of nursing.

Bonus: Mary Seacole


Although the term “African American” doesn’t usually apply to black people born in the Americas outside of the US, no list of trailblazing black nurses would be complete without Jamaican-born Mary Seacole.

With a reputation that rivals that of Florence Nightingale, Seacole certainly made history. Not only did she cope with prejudice and discrimination, but she was also a selfless nurse, dedicated to providing strong medical services to wounded soldiers.

After the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, Seacole traveled overseas to the British War Office, determined to serve as an army nurse. Then when she was refused, she funded her own trip to Crimea, started a hotel for injured officers (built out of salvaged materials), and braved enemy fire to nurse the wounded on the battlefield. Affectionately, she was known as “Mother Seacole.” And she is still remembered in Britain, where many buildings and organizations are named in her honor.


10 things only ER Nurses Understand

By: Scrubs Editor


Coping with frequent fliers. Eating lunch right after cleaning up a messy trauma. Patients who are, well, impatient. ER nurses, we feel your pain!

We asked our Facebook fans for the little things about life on the job that only ER nurses would “get”–laugh (and nod your head in agreement!) at their responses below!

10 things only ER nurses understand

1. How to overcome the stares of hatred from patients waiting in the lobby who have no concept of the words “triage system.”
–Heather Shaw Holliday

2. Patients being allergic to all pain medications except Dilaudid. Or they are allergic to Tylenol, but Vicodin is fine…
–Jenny Bronkema 

3. When the EMS radio goes off with a critical patient and everyone runs to the bathroom because it might be a long time before we get another chance to pee!!
–Nicki Marquardt

4. Most patients: “I was minding my own business” and “I only had two drinks.” I have now decided that minding your own business and two drinks are the most dangerous activities.
–Nikki Anjere 

5. Being able to eat lunch right after cleaning up (insert body part/fluid here) from a particularly messy trauma.
–Aleece Joy Browdy Ellison 

6. How many nurses are required to “supervise” a procedure when the fire rescue hotties are called in to help!
–Elizabeth Gomez

7. Betting on a patient’s blood alcohol level.
–Janine Vose

8. Patients who come in complaining of nausea and vomiting “20 times before I got here;” after they get pain and nausea meds they are demanding something to eat because they are “starving!” LOL!
–Kim Drennen 

9.  Telling “normal” patients, “Don’t worry, he will be fine” as they look at you all worried as the patient next to them is going crazy and you are ignoring their antics!
–Kelle Lawson 

10. Wondering whose life I may help save this shift!
–Mark Streicher 

Mary Mahoney, RN: Nurse Leader and Pioneer of Equality

By: Shantelle Coe


In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to focus on pioneer Mary Eliza Mahoney (May 7, 1845 – January 4, 1926). She is the first black woman to study and work as a professionally-trained nurse in the United States.

Mary Mahoney worked for 15 years as a maid, washerwoman, janitor, and cook at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts, before she was allowed to enroll in nursing school at the age of 33.

In 1879, out of 42 students who started the program with her, Mahoney was one of only four to complete the extremely difficult practicum. In the past, only one African-American student and one Jewish student could be enrolled in the rigorous training class at a time. Her graduation changed the face of nursing education at the institution.

Mahoney then recognized the need for nurses to work together to improve the status of blacks in the nursing profession. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Adah Belle Samuels Thoms and Martha Franklin in 1908.

In 1896, Mahoney became one of the first African-American members of the predominately white American Nurses Association (ANA), which eventually merged with the NACGN in 1951. Today, the ANA commemorates Mary Mahoney and her significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for minorities, and promoting diversity throughout the nursing profession.

Mary continued to participate in the NACGN’s activities until her death from breast cancer in 1926. She is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1976, Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Nurses Who Struggle with Addiction!

By: Angela Brooks


Over the last 23 years in mental health I have met several nurses who struggled with addiction. It all started very simple and under control, then it becomes their normal. I have worked with at least 10 nurses who have been addicted, lost their job and two lost their life to their addiction. How can we stop the addiction before it takes the person?

Most nurses regardless of their practice areas, experience the stresses of long shifts, overtime, and shift rotation, which are physically taxing and tough on family life and friendships. Added to that are emotional demands. Nurses often need to internalize their feelings to stay in control and make split-second, life-and-death decisions. Nurses go from one emotionally and physically demanding situation to another, with little time to decompress.

The availability of medications at work and the acceptance that drugs have the power to help you feel and perform better increases healthcare professionals’ risk of drug abuse.  

Nurses have seen for themselves that medications can solve problems such as someone’s pain, or inability to sleep. Because of their access to and familiarity with drugs, nurses may feel comfortable using them on their own. Many nurses have the belief that, because of our skills and knowledge, we can self-medicate without becoming addicted. It is not true.

I have conversations weekly with nurses who will mention they take something to help them sleep, for anxiety, for depression, and these are just a few.


While nurses’ abuse of drugs and alcohol is roughly equivalent to the general population’s, study have said, “dependence on prescription-type medication use is higher for nurses, and addiction to street drugs, such as cocaine and marijuana, is much lower than the population.”  The most frequently abused substance is alcohol, followed by amphetamines, opiates (such as fentanyl), sedatives, tranquilizers, and inhalants, according to the ANA.

Nurses may ask doctors to write a prescription for them, or some have been known to steal a script and forge prescriptions themselves. The study also said. They also may divert drugs by administering a partial dose to a patient and saving the rest for themselves, or by asking a colleague to cosign a narcotics record saying a drug was wasted without witnessing the drug’s disposal.” Some nurses have signed out medications for patients who have been transferred to another unit or obtained as-needed medications for patients who have refused or not requested them.

Employers have an ethical obligation and most have a legal mandate to report an impaired nurse.  Nurses also have an ethical obligation to address impairment of a colleague, but it is never easy and they always deny they have a problem.

Many nurses are not educated about how to recognize or intervene with a colleague who is abusing drugs or alcohol. Most healthcare facilities choose to fire employees with addiction problems rather than deal with the issue directly, leaving the addicted individual free to apply for employment elsewhere and put other patients at risk. Where does the addiction stop?

Self Reporting is Rare

If  confronted and found to be using – the nurse’s license may be temporarily suspended until he or she demonstrates progress in recovery. Some nurses are never able to return to the health care profession.

Recovering nurses, however, will not have access to narcotics and must be constantly supervised by other nurses until their licenses are fully restored, which can take months or years depending on the nurse’s situation. Which then causes conflict with the nurse’s peers due to lack of trust, and their inability to work in their full scope of practice. Making it hard on the team that is already shorthanded on that shift.

A few standard signs to look for in a co-worker who is abusing:

» Changes jobs frequently
» Prefers night or off-shifts where there is less supervision and more access to medication
» Smells of alcohol or pinpoint pupils or glassy eyes
» Trouble focusing on work
» Good relationships with doctors who may prescribe medication for them
» Often volunteers to administer narcotics to patients
» Patients may complain of inadequate pain relief
» Incomplete charting and practice errors
» Anxious to work overtime or extra shifts
» Moody or isolated, lethargic or high-strung

Anyone is at risk of addiction, no matter whether he or she is young or older, an LPN or RN, or has a master’s degree or PhD.

First the person takes the drug, and then the drug takes the person.

Home Birth vs. Hospital Birth

By: Phylana Stowers, RN, BSN

There are many different opinions and sides to this subject; I think we should all just agree that everyone is looking for the best pregnancy experience they can get, and that means different things to different people. Every woman should have the opportunity to choose what kind of delivery they would like, but those facing complicated or high risk pregnancies should take into consideration the health and safety of herself and her unborn child and think about additional services that may be needed. There are pros and cons to both sides, and even the pros and cons are relative, depending on which side of the fence you sit.


“When it comes to hospital births, they are more controlled. The environment is pretty sterile although delivery of a baby is considered to be a “clean” procedure.”

When you are admitted to the hospital for labor, whether it is induced or natural timing, intravenous IV access is obtained, and you are placed on fetal monitors and a transducer that monitors your contractions.

You are usually confined to a bed, especially if the membrane of your amniotic sack has been ruptured (this can happen naturally or the doctor can “break your water” with an amniotic hook), and you are then limited to ice chips. Your food and fluid intake is limited, in case you have to have a Cesarean Section or another emergency that would require anesthesia.

If you would like, pain medication is readily available in two forms. The first is Nubain, a short acting narcotic that lessens pain perception and makes the pain more tolerable. Second is a longer acting epidural that is administered by an anesthesiologist through the space between the spinal cord and the outer membranes, this space being called the epidural space. The epidural, when working properly, dulls the sensations from your stomach to your legs or feet. These are all pretty standard features that come with the hospital.

Another thing that seem to be standard is the administration of Pitocen, which is a medication that is started to help your contractions become strong and regular. Pitocen is made to simulate Oxytocin, which is a hormone that causes muscles to contract in the uterus. The use of this medication is one of the causes of debate. Sure, if a woman needs help getting contractions started, a little help is wonderful, but rarely in the hospital setting is the need for this medication assessed. It seems to be more about time management, and that is one of the problems with hospital births (in my opinion). Instead of letting the birth happen naturally, they want to speed up the process or make it happen at a desirable time for the doctor or mother.


Home births with midwifes or at birthing centers (BC) are different in that you are able to walk around without intravenous access or monitoring of the baby or contractions, and you’re able to eat and drink. With home births or BC births, you can have as many people involved in your delivery as you would like, as opposed to the limit of two or three in the hospital.

Having an experienced person there will also make it run a bit smoother because they know what is needed and how to help comfort you during contractions and throughout the process.

The home delivery can be a quiet and private experience, or a celebration. This all depends on your desires and expectations. Focus is on how you are tolerating the contractions, and keeping you comfortable seems to be the key.

There is also no time constraint – real or assumed. We all need to remember that birth is a natural occurrence; and you don’t need a hospital, a nurse, or any other personnel for it to happen. It happens on elevators, in the backs of cabs, and other inopportune times. The use of midwives or medical personnel makes it safer in the event your baby needs some help at delivery. Having experienced people there will also make it run a bit smoother, because they know what is needed and how to help comfort you during contractions and throughout the process. This being said, one of the cons of home births would be if there were problems that were unforeseen. A newborn that is in distress needs immediate attention, and a wait for the emergency medical service could make a big difference in the outcome of your baby and his or her health.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg; there are several differences between the two settings. If you are being care for by accredited professionals, you should be able to tell them your idea of how you would like your birthing experience to go, and a plan should be prepared that will help you have the experience you desire. Just keep in mind that the most important thing is the outcome of a healthy baby; if that is your goal, everything else should either fall into place or be adjusted to suit. Keep asking questions, keep informed, and keep your options open.