Black History Month is a time to remember and recognize those who have made significant contributions to nursing and medicine. Today, around 10% of nurses in the United States identify as Black or African American with that number continuing to grow. Let’s take a look at iconic nurses who broke barriers and blazed the path for future generations.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown
Early on in her career, Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was told that she would never be allowed into a nursing program. She didn’t let that stop her and went on to accomplish excellence in the military and nursing profession.
- She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing.
- Joined the army and served in both Japan and Korea where she trained nurses headed to the front during the Vietnam war.
- Johnson-Brown became the first Black woman to achieve the ranking of Brigadier General and lead the US Army Nurse Corps, which numbered 7,000 members at the time.
Throughout her life, she continued to focus on education – she went on to earn a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. in educational administration.
Most people recognize Sojourner Truth as a fervent abolitionist who was able to escape slavery, fewer people know about her own career as a nurse. While she was still a slave, Truth served as a nurse to the Dumont family. When she was granted freedom, she worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington DC. As part of this position, she often spoke before Congress, advocating for nursing education and formal training programs.
Susie King Taylor
During the Civil War, Susie King Taylor volunteered for the Union Army and served in many different roles. But perhaps most importantly, Taylor bravely risked her own health and safety to care for ill and wounded soldiers. In fact, she even snuck into the tents of soldiers who had been quarantined with smallpox and provided them with the care they needed to recover. Her kindness and dedication to compassionate care knew no boundaries.
Goldie D. Brangman
Goldie D. Brangman was a part of the emergency surgical team at Harlem Hospital that was responsible for a successful emergency heart surgery performed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. following an assassination attempt in 1958. Many who were present that day wanted to move Dr. King to a different hospital. It was finally decided that King could not survive the move and needed help immediately. Brangman was responsible for physically operating the breathing bag that kept Dr. King alive during surgery.
After this momentous day, Brangman went on to have an illustrious career, which included serving as President of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) from 1973-74. On October 2, 2017, she turned 100 years old while still volunteering for the American Red Cross and remaining an active member of AANA.
As a pioneer in Ophthalmology, Patricia Bath is not only passionate about eyesight but also about patient rights. In 1976, Bath founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness to advocate for eyesight as a basic human right. By 1973, she became the first African-American to complete a residency in Ophthalmology. Bath decided to pass on her passion through teaching and went on to serve as a faculty member at Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA.
Betty Smith Williams
As a leader and trailblazer, Betty Smith Williams was the first African American to graduate from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing in Cleveland, Ohio, and to teach at a higher education institution in California. From there, she went on to start the National Black Nurses Association in 1971, which is still working to improve healthcare for African-Americans across the country.
Lillian Holland Harvey
Lillian Holland Harvey was a successful nurse and a powerful educator. She served for 30 years as the Dean of the Tuskegee University School of Nursing where she was responsible for developing the school’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree. She served as a leader to her students and inspired them to continue their education while giving back to the community.
Harriet Tubman is another recognizable name from history, but her work as a nurse is a lesser-known detail than her monumental achievements of helping over 300 slaves travel the underground railroad to freedom. During the Civil War, she also earned a reputation as a capable nurse with extensive knowledge of natural and herbal remedies. She treated many soldiers who were suffering from dysentery and smallpox while remarkably managing to stay healthy herself. When the war ended, she continued to care for others and eventually helped to start a home for the elderly.
Mary Eliza Mahoney
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black registered nurse in the United States. In 1879, she graduated from a program in New England that required 16 hours of labor, seven days a week. The program started with 40 students, only 3 graduated – including Mahoney. She proved her mettle and went on to blaze trails for future nurses. In 1908, Mahoney helped to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. In recognition of her achievements, the American Nurses Association created the Mary Mahoney Award, which is still considered one of the highest honors a nurse can receive.
Mabel Keaton Staupers
From the beginning of her career, Staupers was met with resistance amongst segregated nursing programs. Instead of becoming discouraged, she continued to care for patients while also fighting for racial equality. As a result of her efforts, the US Army Nurse Corps and the American Nurses Association were desegregated.
Estelle Massey Osborne
Osborne holds the distinction of being the first Black woman to earn a Masters Degree in Nursing. From that point on, her mission was to make sure that other Black nurses had better access to higher education. During the 1940s, her work significantly expanded the number of nursing schools accepting African American students and led to the US Navy and Army lifting their race ban. In 1945, she joined the faculty at New York University, becoming the first Black member.
As an instructor, she inspired students and fought for nurses’ rights. Today, the Estelle Massey Osborne scholarship helps support nurses who want to follow in her footsteps and earn their Master’s Degree in Nursing.
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms
In 1905, at the age of 25, Adah Belle Samuel Thoms graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing. Thoms was named Acting Director that same year – a position she held for several years with an exemplary record.
Thoms also worked to set up the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and fought to desegregate the American Red Cross and US Army Nurse Corps.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was a nurse and midwife born into slavery in 1818 in Mississippi. After being purchased by a Mormon family, she gave birth to fifteen children and eventually set herself on the path to freedom after life took them all to Los Angeles in 1851.
Even though she had little formal education, Mason became an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and real estate tycoon. In 1866, Mason became one of the first African-Americans to own many acres of property in Los Angeles, now known as Biddy Mason Park.
Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse who dedicated her life to providing medical care in both the Crimean War and Jamaica. Born in Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican businesswoman, Seacole showed early on her willingness to live life without limits.
She was a self-taught healer, learning traditional medicine from her mother. Although the British Army rejected her due to her mixed heritage and lack of formal training, she successfully appealed directly to Florence Nightingale, which enabled her to receive much-needed supplies when helping the wounded in Balaclava.
Although she was not allowed to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing mission, Mary refused to let that be an obstacle and instead made her mark as an independent nurse. Throughout her life, Mary raised money for wounded soldiers and veterans, helped bring aid to warzones, and opened The British Hotel in Crimea that provided injured soldiers with meals and comfort.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Rebecca Lee Crumpler made history as the first Black woman to earn a degree in medicine in the United States. Born in 1831 during a time of great inequality and injustice, she persevered with determination and strength, graduating from New England Female Medical College in 1864 (now known as Boston University School of Medicine).
Despite considerable racial and gender barriers, she went on to practice medicine for over 25 years and published a groundbreaking book about women and children’s health titled “Book of Medical Discourses.” Her life was dedicated to helping others. She has been credited with revolutionizing nursing care for African-Americans, giving them access to high-quality healthcare they previously could not receive.
Her remarkable career paved the way for generations of black doctors who followed, allowing them to practice medicine without legislation standing in their way. An inspiring figure for generations to come, Nurse Rebecca continues to be remembered for breaking barriers and setting an example of success through hard work, dedication, and courage.
Mary Elizabeth Carnegie
Mary Elizabeth Carnegie blazed a trail for nurses everywhere. She was the first Black nurse to serve on an American state nursing association’s voting board. She made significant contributions to the nursing world by becoming president of the American Academy of Nursing and editor of Nursing Research.
After graduating college, Carnegie worked in a hospital in Richmond, VA, where she later became a clinical instructor at St. Philip Hospital School of Nursing. Through her hard work and dedication, Carnegie proved naysayers wrong who believed that southern social systems could not change for the better, paving the way for countless others to follow.
Faye Wattleton was an innovator, activist, and role model for generations of nurses. Throughout her career, she laid down an impressive track record in nursing, achieving landmark civil rights successes along the way.
As the first African-American and youngest president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), she broadened its mission to focus not only on reproductive rights but also issues relating to sexuality, gender-based violence, poverty alleviation, and more.
Under her leadership, PPFA saw doubled donations and an exponential increase in community outreach efforts. Her legacy has made an undeniable impact on generations of Americans and helped create accessible health services for all.
Elinor Powell was a remarkable leader who mobilized Black nurses during World War II. Hailing from Milton, Massachusetts, she joined the United States Army Nurse Corps while stationed at Camp Florence, Arizona. She courageously cared for German soldiers, including Nazi prisoners of war, who were captured in Europe and Northern Africa.
Interestingly, before her mission commenced at Camp Florence, it primarily employed White nurses. At this time, Black nurses were forbidden from treating White GIs until the later years of WWII.
It is here that Elinor met her star-crossed love, Frederick Albert. Together, they experienced the horrors of war and began a blossoming romance. Although interracial relationships were heavily frowned upon at the time, their love overcame the odds and survived the war.
Nurse Elinor and her soldier proved that despite differences in race or background, with commitment and dedication, even unlikely circumstances can provide a truly unique story of love and success.
Lillian Holland Harvey
Lillian Holland Harvey was an inspirational leader in the field of health education and a driving force behind Alabama’s first Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. As Dean at Tuskegee University School Of Nursing for nearly 30 years, Professor Harvey provided students with solid academic foundations and invaluable hands-on patient care experience, both within her state and beyond its borders.
For Harvey, no circumstance was too challenging to overcome. Despite the segregation of the 1940s, she achieved various honors and accolades. Those who studied under her recall being inspired by her dedication to advancing education, learning how to prioritize work-life balance, and getting involved with their local communities – a testament that even through hardship can come empowerment.
Martha Minerva Franklin
Martha Minerva Franklin was a nurse who broke barriers and redefined nursing as we know it today. Originally born in 1870 in New Milford, Connecticut, Franklin courageously relocated to New York City in 1928 to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.
She took a six-month postgraduate training program at Lincoln Hospital to become a registered nurse and devoted herself to working in public schools for the next two years.
Franklin’s passionate and tireless research in 1906 revealed the inadequacies of nursing associations nationwide and their discrimination towards Black nurses.
A survey she helped create revealed that, while technically allowed to join the prominent American Nurses Association, Black RNs were refused membership in their state nursing associations, which would naturally prevent them from entering the ANA as well.
Furthermore, Franklin’s remarkable leadership laid the foundation for a new movement. As a result of her impactful surveys involving more than one thousand Black nurses, Franklin organized the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN).
She outlined the organization’s cornerstone goals:
Boosting training opportunities for black nurses while working to level out their disadvantages
Developing leadership within the black community
Ending racial inequality in nursing
Ernestine “Tina” Berry Carter
Nurse and Evangelist Ernestine “Tina” Berry Carter was an influential figure who, through hard work and dedication, made a lasting impact in the healthcare field. Her grandson, award-winning entertainer and singer Usher Raymond looked up to her as an inspiration.
She earned her Licensed Practical Nurse certification in 1953 and became a Registered Nurse in 1974 after attending Cleveland State Community College. But it was when she became Memorial Hospital’s first Black admissions nurse and their inaugural “Ask A Nurse” program nurse that she achieved greatness and opened doors for those who followed her.
Adrienne Banfield-Norris is an inspiring person whose hardships have paved the way for her to achieve many goals. She previously battled substance abuse which deeply affected her daughter, Jada Pinkett Smith’s childhood, yet this did not stop Adrienne from earning a nursing degree. Her persistence paid off and resulted in an impressive accomplishment when she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Coppin State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing.
This level of success required hard work, dedication, and real grit—qualities admired by Pinkett-Smith, who created an RN character inspired by her mother’s nursing career for her 2009 TV show HawthoRNe. The show was a smash hit, earning an NAACP award in 2010.
Utilizing that same perseverance, compassion, and optimism that she applied to her academic success in nursing school, Adrienne continues to radiate positivity in achieving further goals in the entertainment world.
Today, you can catch her hosting the Emmy award-winning show Red Table Talk alongside daughter Jada and granddaughter Willow.
The Black Angels
Between the years of 1928 to 1960, “The Black Angels” were a brave, dedicated group of nurses who selflessly put their lives on the line to care for tuberculosis (TB) patients at Sea View Hospital.
This was no small feat as there was no way of treating the disease effectively at that time, and white nurses had already refused the duty due to its dangers. To fill the void, recruiters from far-reaching places like Georgia were employed to bring Black nurses to New York and provide thorough training.
Additionally, they worked with physicians to trial and developed treatments for TB, making an invaluable contribution to medical advancement. One physician, Dr. Nancy Bates Allen, explained her appreciation, noting, “It’s a hidden story, and I’m very happy that people are paying attention now and realize that the doctors didn’t just come in and discover these drugs all by themselves. The nurses were assisting them with their trials.”
Thanks to these courageous women, TB patients received the necessary care and comfort during one of the most trying times in medical history—an inspiring testament of selflessness in action.
St. Philip School of Nursing
The 791 Black women who graduated from St. Philip Nursing School between 1920 and 1962 showed remarkable courage in the face of deep-seated racism and segregation.
This school, supported by the Medical College of Virginia (the predecessor of Virginia Commonwealth University), was created with a great purpose: to allow Black women to receive education and the opportunity to pursue their nursing dreams—a privilege their White female counterparts had already seized.
This educational experience would allow them to devote themselves to healing others within their community. Due to their strength, resilience, and dedication, these women have earned recognition as prominent pioneers who pushed boundaries during a difficult period in history.