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Powering Through Prejudice: Black Nurses Continue to Make History

We give the most credit to Florence Nightingale for the foundation of modern nursing, yet countless Black nurses have upheld and innovated the nursing profession to make it what it is today.

In 1920, the St. Philip School of Nursing opened to train its first Black nurses to care for Black patients. The school was operational until 1962, amid the Civil Rights Movement, and is a symbol of what was expected of Black nurses at the time: work harder, travel further, and for less recognition. It's likely that you haven't heard about the school, or its students, in nursing textbooks. We give the most credit to Florence Nightingale for the foundation of modern nursing, yet countless Black nurses have upheld and innovated the nursing profession to make it what it is today.

With today's nursing environment still rife with racism, nurse bullying, and omnipresent staffing shortages, it's imperative that we take a step back and examine the history and contributions of Black nurses have made in our profession to move into the future where they receive the recognition and honor they deserve.

Black Nurses of the Past: Trailblazing Despite Tensions

Nursing was established during a time of high racial tensions. The slave trade hit its peak by 1820, and by the 1850s, modern nursing was founded. Even nearly a hundred years later, in 1932, the Tuskegee trials took place, where Black men were test subjects of a Syphilis study without their consent. In the 1950s, the cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks were harvested without her knowledge to develop modern-day IVF and cancer treatments. Modern healthcare was built on an infrastructure that treated patients differently because of their race.

Despite unfair treatment, Black nurses continued to lead courageously, establishing "firsts" in the healthcare field and following their passion for nursing and education. While the following list highlights notable Black nurses, it is nowhere near complete with those who have also forged ahead in troubled times.

Harriet Tubman (1822 - 1913)

Harriet Tubman is primarily well-known for her work on the Underground Railroad, liberating hundreds of enslaved people, but she was also a nurse in the Union Army during the American Civil War. She was considered a skilled nurse and healer, caring for both Black and white soldiers and any injured enslaved people she encountered.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 - 1926)

In 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black nurse to graduate from formal nurse training and education. However, after graduation, she was uncomfortable practicing public nursing due to discrimination, so she became a private-duty nurse. Later, she became a member of the Nurses Associated Alumnae, which became the American Nurses Association (ANA), and eventually founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.

Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927 - 2011)

Hazel Johnson-Brown wanted to be a nurse since childhood, but in the 1940s, she was denied acceptance from the first nursing school she applied to because of her race. In 1955, she joined the US Army and eventually became the first Black woman to be promoted to Brigadier General, leading over 7,000 nurses. She later became a member of the ANA, where her military experience helped assist with government relations.

Hattie Bessent (1908 - 2015)

Hattie Bessent was the leader of the ANA's Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program.

Bernadine Lacey (1932 - 2021)

Bernadine Lacey was the founder of Western Michigan University's School of Nursing.

Helen S. Miller (1917 - 2003)

Helen S. Miller was an author and the first Black nurse to be elected President of a district nursing association in North Carolina.

Mary Elizabeth Carnegie (1916 - 2008)

Mary Elizabeth Carnegie was an author and founder of the Baccalaureate Nursing Program at Hampton University.

Black Nurses of the Present: Leading with Purpose

Today, many Black nurses take on the burden of educating the public about the racism embedded in healthcare while balancing proposals of how to implement change.

Vivienne Pierce McDaniel

Vivienne Pierce McDaniel, DNP, MSN, RN, is a Virginia-based diversity, equity, and inclusion champion and a relative of Rev. Curtis Harris, a civil rights activist who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Among McDaniel's many current endeavors, she is a professor of nursing and DEI consultant for the James Madison University School of Nursing and Sentinel U® healthcare simulations and learning innovators.

What we get wrong, says Dr. McDaniel, is that we forget to celebrate the many Black nurses that built the foundation of nursing and continue to be leaders today in the nursing practice. "Statistically, Black nurses are underrepresented in nursing, but it's not that they're just underrepresented; they are under-acknowledged," she adds. When asked about how we can create an anti-racist future in nursing, McDaniel suggests:

  • Examination of your own implicit biases and practicing cultural humility with every encounter.
  • Not accommodating racist patient requests to reassign their Black nurses.
  • Implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism and abiding by them.
  • Inclusion of Black nurses in leadership and decision-making processes.
  • Advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion committees at facilities.

McDaniel says she would leave the nurses of the future and today with a call to action based on the words of the late congressman John Lewis: "When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something…Speak up, speak out, and get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

Dr. Ernest Grant

Dr. Grant was the first Black and male, President of the ANA.

Eddie Bernice Johnson

Eddie Bernice Johnson was the first Black nurse elected to Congress.

Sylvia Trent Adams

Sylvia Trent-Adams is a former Deputy Surgeon General of the United States.

Black Nurses of the Future: The Path Forward

Many healthcare professionals today are becoming more self-aware of the racist foundations of nursing and are committed to creating change. While we don't know who the influential Black nurses of the future will be, we cannot forget all the nurses who paved the path forward for them.

  • Those that were enslaved and became nurses.
  • The Black nurses who traveled far for their education in segregated nursing schools, like St. Philip School of Nursing.
  • The Black nurses who fought through the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The Black nurses that sought education despite discrimination.
  • All Black nurses, healers, and midwives who weren't named in American and worldwide history but deserve to be honored for their contributions.

When we recognize and honor Black history in nursing, we can create a better future for all underrepresented in nursing and be propagators of equity and inclusion.

Vivienne Pierce McDaniel (left), Late Congressman John Lewis (right)
Vivienne Pierce McDaniel (left), Eddie Bernice Johnson (right)
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