Seven Black Nursing Heroes

As a person whose skin is light, I’ve been hesitant to write an article about the subject of Black History, lest I am perceived as pretending to know more than I do about the subject.

Crowd smiling

Now, with due humility, I’d like to remedy that and acknowledge the importance,  give recognition, and thank those black nurses from history, who blazed a trail for us all by standing up for themselves and ennobling our profession.

Here is a short list of some of the most notable, professionally trained, licensed black nurse leaders I found:

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926). Born prior the Civil War, Ms. Mahoney was the first US African-American licensed nurse. She was licensed in 1879 at 34 years old, after she had been working in her home state of Massachusetts at the  New England Hospital for Women and Children, alternately as a maid, a laundress, and a cook, before she was encouraged to enroll in nursing school and take her place in history.   Can you imagine the strength of character it took, to stand up to the Dean and petition to be admitted to an all-white program?After admission to the demanding 16-month program, she  was one of only a few people (and the only non-white student) who graduated that year!

During her time, Mary Mahoney advocated for ALL nurses to increase in professionalism. She understood the value of collegial partnerships and joined (what later became) the American Nurses Association. Taking advocacy on step further, Ms. Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which (years later) also merged with the ANA.

Mary was also a proponent of women’s rights. She worked alongside several other women, of all complexions, to lobby for the women’s right to vote and in 1920, became one of the first women to registerafter the 19th Amendment was passed!

Notably, every two years, the ANA commemorates her work by giving the Mary Mahoney award to those nurses who have made “outstanding contributions to opening and advancing opportunities in nursing to members of minority groups.”

Martha Minerva Franklin (1870 – 1968) was raised in Connecticut. Her father had served in the Union Army as a soldier in the Civil War. She graduated with a nursing degree from the Women’s Hospital Training School in Philadelphia, in 1897.

Afterwards, she moved to New York City to work as a school nurse. In 1909,  Martha and Adah Belle Samuels Thoms worked with Mary Mahoney to form the NACGN. Martha served as the first President. She also spent many years working to achieve the right of African-Americans to be “at the table” with other nurses.

Adah Belle Samuels Thoms (1870 – 1943) Raised in Virginia, Mrs. Thoms began her career as a teacher (a common theme among nurses). When she moved to New York City to attend nursing school, she began meeting other black nurses, all working to end discrimination within the profession. Thus, she befriended Martha Franklin and Mary Mahoney. The three nurses collaborated to begin the NACGN.

Adah rose to leadership positions, which included : Acting Director and Superintendent of Nurses at the Lincoln Hospital and Home.

When WWI began in 1914 and then, in 1918, when the Spanish Flu pandemic broke out,

these three nurses fought stereotypes and discriminatory policies in several states, as they petitioned, within the US Army and the American Red Cross, for black nurses to be allowed to serve with equal status as other nurses. Their influence inspired changes in these large institutions.

Carrie E. Bullock (c. 1887 –1962). Carrie began as a teacher in South Carolina and later graduated from nursing school in Chicago in 1909. As a nurse advocate, she worked with The Visiting Nurses Association and volunteered alongside Mary Mahoney in the NACGN for black nurses to be fairly compensated in the workplace .

In 1938, she was awarded the Mary Mahoney Award, herself!

Frances Reed Elliott (1892–1965). Growing up an interracial child in North Carolina was not easy. Frances was orphaned by the time she was five years old and grew up in the foster care system. A voracious reader, she loved to learn, and was mostly self-taught.  She graduated from Knoxville College in 1917 with a teaching degree. Before long, she had the opportunity to further her education again, this time, as a nurse.

She showed a tenacious spirit when faced with every discriminatory obstacle, including the fact that where she was enrolled, in the Freedman Hospital School for Nurses in Washington D.C, there was a different final nursing licensing exam for white students and African-American students; the exam for the whites was more difficult and allowed more responsibility after passing. In 1913, she pushed back, quietly but with true grit, and demanded to be treated equally and take the “white” exam, which she passed.

Ms Elliott later became the first black nurse be employed by the American Red Cross Nursing Service, where she rose to leadership positions, including Director of Red Cross Nurses in Alabama and Director of the Red Cross Training School for African-American nurses in Michigan.

Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890 – 1989) Born in Barbados, West Indies, Mabel’s parents emigrated to New York City when she was 13 years old. By 1917, the family attained full US citizenship and the same year, Mabel graduated from  Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C. 

Mrs. Staupers had a desire to help children and to improve the health of all poor people, so she stepped out as a leader and organized groups to meet the needs she saw. The first project was an in-patient clinic for African Americans with tuberculosis, at the Booker T. Washington Sanatorium. She became the Sanatorium’s first Superintendent. Next, she became the Executive Secretary for the Harlem Tuberculosis Committee, as well as the 

Executive Director of the NAGN.

When WW II broke out, Mabel had quite a following. Despite some progress that had been attained in WWI, so that black nurses were allowed to serve in the Army, there were strict quotas in place that severely limited the number of African-American nurses employed.

Staupers petitioned the President (FDR) to change the quotas and allow the Army to employ hundreds of black nurses who were eagerly waiting for the opportunity to serve, instead of drafting more white nurses.  Staupers mobilized a large protest, with nurses of all stripes, to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt and advocate for equity in  the Army Nurse Corps. Thanks to her determination, the President changed the policy, so that applications would be open to all nurses, regardless of race.

She wrote about her experiences in the book, No Time for Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United States.

In 1951, she was recognized by the  NAACP and awarded the Spingarn Medal for her fight against discrimination.

Chief Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915 – 1992). Dr. Pratt was born in Lagos and attained the distinction of graduating from the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing at St. Thomas Hospital, London. She never met the iconic nurse whom she revered and emulated (Nightingale died in 1910), but she was very proud to have been the first black nurse to graduate from that school.

She and her husband met in Lagos and travelled a lot, because he  was  a Pharmacist who found employment in more than one location, before he later qualified as an MD in Scotland.

Interestingly, during the WWII years, many colonial students from West Africa and the Caribbean arrived in Britain. More interesting is that, at a time when feminism was limping along in Europe and the US, many of these Pan-African and Caribbean Island students were female, despite the fact that the majority of colonial scholarships were given to men.

‘Rola’ had boundless energy. She used her powers of observation and dedication to public health to serve as a leader to move healthcare and public policy forward in Nigeria, Lagos, and Cameroon. Her leadership and service achievements are many, beginning with the fact she was the first black nurse to work for  the NHS in U.K. Later, she was elected the VP of the International Council of Nurses and became the first black Chief Nursing Officer of the country of Nigeria.

Dear reader, you may note that I have excluded two fine, black women who were not formally trained as nurses, but who helped out in times of war. They are Mary Seacole (Crimean Conflict, 1854-56) and Harriet Tubman (Civil War 1862).

I have added a few of the references used , below, if you’d like to learn more. (book) (dissertation)

A Brief History of the American Red Cross (PDF). Red Cross. Retrieved 19 February 2019.