Pioneer Mary Eliza Mahoney Was The First Black Nurse In America

February 20, 2013  |  

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According to Minority Nurse, there are about 2,909,357 licensed registered nurses in the United States, of these approximately 4.2 percent are Black or African American (non-Hispanic).

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) paved their way. She was the first black professional nurse in America as well as an active organizer among African-American nurses. Born in Boston on May 7, 1845, she decided to pursue a career in nursing at the age of 18, working at the progressive New England Hospital for Women and Children.

According to PBS’s American Experience, in 1878, at age 33, she was accepted in that hospital’s nursing school, the first professional nursing program in the country. She was one of only four women who graduated out of a initial class of 42 students. Following graduation, Mahoney registered for work as a private-duty nurse. From the start she made her mark. “Her professionalism helped raise the status of all nurses. At a time when nurses were often assigned domestic chores as well as nursing duties, she refused to take her meals with household staff. As he reputation spread, Mahoney received requests from patients as far away as New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina,” reports PBS.

She later became one of the first black members of the organization that evolved into the American Nurses Association (A.N.A.). Because the ANA was  slow to admit black nurses, Mahoney strongly supported the development of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (N.A.C.G.N.). When Mahoney gave the welcome address at the NACGN’s first annual convention in 1909, she spoke of the inequalities in nursing education and called for a demonstration at the New England Hospital to have more African-American students admitted. Mahoney was elected as the organization’s chaplain and was given a lifetime membership. For more than a decade, Mahoney helped recruit nurses for the organization.

In 1911 was named head of the Howard Orphan Asylum in New York, and worked there for over a year.

An activist at heart, Mahoney was deeply concerned with women’s equality and a strong supporter of the movement to gain women the right to vote. When the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, she was among the first women in Boston to register to vote — at the age of 76.

Mahoney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1923 and died in 1926. In 1936, the N.A.C.G.N. established an award in her honor (later adopted by the A.N.A.) to raise the status of black nurses. And in 1976, she was inducted into the A.N.A.’s Hall of Fame posthumously.

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