By Ayodele Nwosu
Published on February 24th, 2014
It was not until after the Civil War did the field of nursing begin to organize and formalize nursing education and patient care. It was the notes Florence Nightingale kept during her time as a nurse during the civil war that set the course of nursing upgrade in motion. It was through the efforts of extraordinary black nurses who worked for equality for all and better nursing standards did the field of nursing improve.
Estelle Massey Osborne was born on 03 May 1901 and was one of 11 children. Her passion for taking care of others led her to the field of nursing and she attended Prairie View State College. She decided to pursue a higher level of nursing and attended Columbia University Teacher’s College. While attending Columbia she taught at the Lincoln School for Nurses in Bronx, New York. She also became the first nursing instructor at Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She became the Educational Director of Nursing at Freedman’s Hospital School of Nursing, which has since become Howard University College of Nursing.
It was Osborne’s goal to provide more opportunity and improve options available to black nurses. She wanted black nurses to receive same high level nursing education that white nursing students received. In 1943 Osborne became a consultant for the National Nursing Council for War Services and helped lift the color ban in nursing in the United States Army and Navy.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was born on 10 October 1927 in Westchester, Pennsylvania and was one of seven children. By the time she was 12 years old she was inspired to be a nurse. She applied to the West Chester School of Nursing and her application was rejected on the basis of her being black. In order to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, she moved to New York City and was admitted to the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing.
After President Truman banned segregation and discrimination in the United States military, Johnson-Brown enlisted in the army in 1955. She began her military nursing career as a staff nurse while stationed in Japan and then a Chief Nurse while stationed in Korea. While in the military, Johnson-Brown attended Columbia University and earned a master’s degree in nursing education and then a doctorate in education administration from Catholic University of America. In the 1960s, she trained surgical nurses who were assigned to medical units being sent to Vietnam. Johnson-Brown became the first black female general in the United States Army and the first black Chief of the Army Nurse Corp, directing a group of more than 7,000 nurses.
Isabella Baumfree, who gave herself the name of Sojourner Truth, was born into slavery in 1797 and was sold along with a flock of sheep for $100. She was trained as a nurse, at a time when there was no formal nursing training, to serve her owner. After gaining her freedom she worked at the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washing, D.C. Her mission, through her work with the Relief Association, was as an advocate for improving the quality of patient care and cleanliness of medical facilities and equipment. She was outspoken about the need to improve the quality of nursing care and urged Congress to finance training programs for nurses. Her efforts formed the foundation for formal nursing training and improved patient care standards.
Mary Eliza Mahoney, a Massachusetts native, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1845. She was employed at the N.E. Hospital for Women and Children, which is now the Dimock Community Health Center, for 15 years before being accepted into its nursing program. She was only 1 of three nursing students, out of a class of 40, who graduated with her nursing diploma in 1905. She went on to work as a private duty nurse in Long Island, New York. In 1896, Mahoney was one of the original founding members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada. In 1911, the organization became the American Nurses Association (ANA). In 1908, Mahoney was the co-founder of a prestigious organization for black nurses, National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). In 1951, the two organizations merged. Evan after her retirement, she continued to be an advocate for equality in nursing and worked to make sure all nursing programs were always open to both black and white nurses. When women won the right to vote in 1920, Mahoney was one of the first women in Boston, Massachusetts to register to vote.
Adah Belle Samuels Thomas is considered a nursing scholar as well as an advocate and crusader for racial equality in nursing. She proved through her nursing effort, blacks were as capable as whites in the field of nursing. Ms. Thomas was the President of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses for 7 years and worked to assure the acceptance of black nurses in the American Red Cross. She also held several high ranking positions within the educational system that were unheard of for women to hold, including acting director of the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York. She was an outspoken advocate for the field of public health to be recognized as a new field of nursing. It was through her advocacy that the field of nursing was being defined and helped form the foundation of modern day nursing.