Black History Month is the perfect time to celebrate the remarkable legacy of Black pioneers in nursing.

Black History Month provides a poignant opportunity to honor and amplify the remarkable legacy of Black pioneers in nursing, whose strength and courage have confronted historical racial injustices and continue to serve as an enduring beacon for the ongoing pursuit of nursing and racial equality.

Honoring Black Nurses in History

After the Civil War ended in 1865, southern Blacks lived with a measure of freedom and equality for about 15 years until the legalization of segregation, which denied them equal rights in pretty much every aspect of their lives. Mary Eliza Mahoney, Adah Belle Thoms, Estelle Massey Osborne, and Della H. Raney were among the black nurses in history to drive change during this era.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

At 33, Mary Eliza Mahoney was one of four students out of 42 to graduate from the New England Hospital School of Nursing, making her the first Black nurse to graduate from nursing school and receive a professional nursing license in the United States. She was a champion for increased access to nursing education and fought against discrimination throughout her career.

Today, the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization in Seattle, Washington, awards annual scholarships to nursing students of African heritage residing in Washington. Furthermore, in 2023, the American Nurses Association launched an annual Mary Eliza Mahoney Lecture Series for the next three years in May.

Adah Belle Thoms (1870-1943)

Adah Belle Thoms graduated as the only Black nurse at the Women's Infirmary and School of Therapeutic Massage in 1900. She continued her studies, then became the supervising surgical nurse and acting director of Lincoln Hospital in New York City from 1906-1923. Due to racial policies, she was never named director.

In 1908, she organized and hosted the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), whose mission was to fight for the full integration of Black women into nursing. In addition, she pushed for equality in education, pay, and opportunities. Thoms also lobbied for the American Red Cross and the Army Nurse Corps to allow Black nurses into their ranks during both World Wars.

In 1929, she published Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses. In 1936, she received the first Mary Mahoney Award and was one of the original inductees to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

Estelle Massey Osborne (1901-1981)

Estelle Massey Osborne is a prime example of how scholarships can change a life. After leaving a teaching career to become a nurse, she took her training at a hospital in St. Louis—and then received a scholarship to continue her education. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree, then continued her studies to become the first Black nurse with a Master of Science degree.

Osbourne tirelessly opened academic doors for Black nurses. She raised funds for students to attend Black colleges, joined the faculty for the Department of Nursing Education at New York University, became the first African American Associate Professor to teach at the University of New Maryland, joined the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corporation, and served as the eleventh president of the NACGN.

She received the Mary Mahoney Award in 1946. Then, in 1959, Fisk University established the Estelle Massey Scholarship to honor her contributions to nursing.

Della H. Raney (1912-1987)

Della H. Raney is another trailblazer with several firsts credited to her. She graduated from the first nursing program designed for “Negro” nursing students. At the beginning of World War II, Raney challenged the American Red Cross to become the first African American to receive a commission as second lieutenant of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC). She later became the first Black chief nurse at Fort Bragg.

In 1942, she became the principal chief nurse and first lieutenant at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where she became the supervisor over other Black female nurses facing discrimination. She achieved the rank of major before retiring.

The Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation (TASF), in tandem with The National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), established the Della H. Raney Nursing Scholarship in 2012.

A collage that honors black nurses in history, including Mary Eliza Mahoney, Adah Belle Thoms, and Estelle Massey Osborne.

Honoring Modern Black Nurse Leaders

These historical trailblazers passed the torch to several modern Black nurse leaders who carried it forward and those who continue to make inroads with other firsts and significant milestones.

Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)

The Chester School of Nursing in Pennsylvania denied Hazel Johnson-Brown admission because she was Black. So, instead, she took her training at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing and graduated in 1950.

After being an Emergency Room (ER) nurse for three years, working on a medical cardiovascular nursing unit and becoming head nurse, she joined the Army Nurse Corps (ANC), where she became the first Black chief of the ANC, and the first Black female brigadier general in the U. S. Army. In addition to these achievements, she completed her nursing degree and master's and became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in the Department of Defense.

George Mason University, where Hazel Johnson-Brown was a nursing faculty member, offers a General Hazel Johnson-Brown Endowed Scholarship to undergraduate and graduate nursing students. The scholarship doesn't seem to be designated for Black students only.

Lauranne Brown Sams (1927-2007)

In 1950, Dr. Lauranne Sams graduated at the top of her class, with three African Americans and 29 white women, at Butler University and General Hospital of Nursing, with a Bachelor's and Master of Science degrees. She became the first African American professor at the Indiana University School of Nursing, where she focused on recruiting minority students. She became the Dean and nursing professor at Tuskegee University's School of Nursing.

In 1971, she helped establish the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) and served as its first president. The association actively lobbies for improved working conditions and equality for nurses of color. The NBNA offers the Dr. Lauranne Sams Scholarship for any Black nursing student pursuing a baccalaureate of nursing or another advanced degree. 

Ernest J. Grant (1958-Present)

Known for his commitment to diversity in nursing and engagement with young nursing professionals, namely African American men, Dr. Ernest J. Grant breaks racial and gender stereotypes in nursing.

Dr. Grant became the first African American male president of the North Carolina Nurse Association in 2010 and the first African American male president of the American Nurses Association in 2018.

Starting his career as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), he is a distinguished leader with over 30 years of nursing experience. He is also an internationally recognized burn care and fire safety expert. He received the 2001 Nurse of the Year Award from President George W. Bush for his work treating burn victims at the Cornell Burn Center near the World Trade Center site following 9/11.

In 2022, Modern Healthcare named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare. He has also appeared on the publication's 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives list three times.

Today, Dr. Grant is the Vice Dean of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) at the Duke University School of Nursing. He also established the Ernest J. Grant Endowed Scholarship in Nursing atUNC Greensboro for multicultural male nursing students needing financial assistance.

Courtney Lyder (1966-Present)

Courtney Lyder, a leading expert in pressure injuries, became the first Black male to head a nursing program in the U.S. when he was named dean of the University of California of Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Nursing in 2008. After leaving the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to live with his grandparents at five years of age, he became interested in helping older people and decided to pursue nursing. He stepped down as dean in 2015 and is now a director for Swiftmerge Acquisition Corporation, which acquires healthcare companies with hopes of offering improved patient technology.

A collage that honors modern black nurse leaders, including Hazel Johnson-Brown, Lauranne Brown Sams, and Ernest J. Grant.

Recent Achievements in Nursing

One of the most recent achievements in nursing stems from 2017 when registered nurse Tauqilla Manning was told her natural hairstyle was ˈunprofessionalˈ during a travel nurse assignment, she decided to turn her pain into purpose. She is now the CEO and founder of Black Nurses Week, which debuted in 2022 to empower and celebrate the Black nursing community and the excellence they bring to the profession.

This year, the third annual Black Nurses Week will be held from July 26 through August 1, during which there will be a three-day conference at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, to empower Black nurses to thrive financially, become entrepreneurs, and achieve excellence in healthcare.

Furthermore, on June 11, 2022, the American Nurses Association (ANA) demonstrated leadership in acknowledging and eradicating Black racism in nursing by voting in favor of the Racial Reckoning Statement. This declaration recognizes their past actions that perpetuated Black racism—and the trailblazers that forged the way forward.

Nursing and Racial Equality Today

Black nurses in history helped pave the way for today's Black nurse leaders to experience better equality and inclusion in healthcare, but more work still needs to be done.

Despite recognition by government and institutions that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) of Black nurses improves healthcare access and quality of care—Black nurses are still under-represented in the profession. In 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Black nurses represented 9.9% of nurse practitioners, 13.5% of registered nurses, and 28.7% of licensed practical and vocational nurses.

However, slow but steady progress is being made to improve diversity. Universities and healthcare companies can now take an independent assessment to determine if they meet DEI standards, and some are hiring DEI practitioners—people trained to identify what needs to happen to create equality and diversity through policies, nursing curriculum development, and support for Black students.

In celebrating the indomitable spirit of black pioneers in nursing, we pay homage to past struggles and acknowledge the profound impact modern leaders continue to make to shape a future where diversity, equity, and excellence thrive. Consider how you can improve nursing and racial equality in your corner of the world.