February is Black History Month, a time to honor and celebrate America’s Black pioneers who changed the course of this country through their leadership, innovation, and will to challenge the injustices of their time.
There are many Black historical figures in nursing to celebrate this month, from the well-known, like Harriet Tubman, who served as a nurse during the Civil War, to the countless healers who practiced nursing before formal training was available to people of color.
Today, Black nurses strive for inclusion in a workplace that often lacks diversity. A recent survey by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and the Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers found that in 2020, 80.6% of RNs in the workforce reported being white/Caucasian and 6.7% reported being black/African American. There's still much work to be done to improve diversity and inclusion in the nursing profession.
As we celebrate Black History Month 2023, ShiftMed honors these eight Black nurses in history who fought to be heard, respected, and included, and in doing so, paved the way for many others to follow.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)
While other Black nurses came before her, Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black nurse to graduate from nursing school and receive a professional nursing license in the United States. She worked several jobs at the New England Hospital for Women and Children before receiving her license, including janitor, cook, and nurse’s aide. At age 33, Mahoney entered the hospital’s nursing program, graduating 16 months later with her license. She was a champion for increased access to nursing education and fought against discrimination throughout her career.
Adah Belle Thoms (1879-1943)
Adah Belle Thoms served as the supervising surgical nurse and acting director of Lincoln Hospital in New York City from 1906-1923 but was never named director due to her race. In 1908, she organized and hosted the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, whose mission was to fight for the full integration of Black women into the nursing profession, including pushing 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. She was one of the original inductees to the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976.
Estelle Massey Osborne (1901-1981)
Estelle Massey Osbourne was a pioneer and leader in education and administrative nursing roles during a time when women of color were largely prohibited from holding top positions. When she entered nursing school, only 14 of the nation’s 1,300 schools for nursing were open to Black applicants. Osborne furthered her education at Columbia University, where she became the first Black nurse to earn a master’s degree. During World War II, she played a significant role in the U.S. Navy by lifting its color ban on nurses.
Della H. Raney (1912-1987)
At the start of World War II, Della Raney, a North Carolina nurse, wanted to serve her country. But as a Black nurse, her applications to the Army Nurse Corps were repeatedly rejected. Her persistence paid off, and after writing a personal letter to the head of the American Red Cross, she became the first Black nurse accepted to the Army Nurse Corps, earning a commission as 2nd lieutenant. Due to segregation in the ranks, Raney could only care for Black service members. During her distinguished military career, she served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield and Fort Huachuca, home of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. She retired at the rank of major, and the National Black Nurses Association awards a scholarship in her name.
Hazel Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)
Hazel Johnson-Brown was a pioneering military nurse who joined the Army in 1955—seven years after President Truman ordered military desegregation. Quickly rising through the ranks, she made military history in 1979 when the Army nominated her to become the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps with an accompanying promotion to brigadier general. Johnson-Brown was the first Black woman appointed to these posts. Following her retirement, she helped nursing students advance their careers as a professor of nursing at Georgetown University and George Mason University.
Lauranne Brown Sams (1927-2007)
Dr. Lauranne Sams spent 16 years on the Indiana University School of Nursing faculty, where she actively recruited and retained minority nursing students. In 1971, she organized the National Black Nurses Association, serving as its first president. The association actively lobbies for improved working conditions, equal rights, and pay for nurses of color. The association offers a scholarship in her name to help nursing students continue their education.
Ernest J. Grant (1958-Present)
Dr. Ernest J. Grant is not only breaking color barriers in nursing, but also gender stereotypes in a profession where only 9.4% are male. President George Bush presented him with the Nurse of the Year award in 2002 for his work treating burn victims after 9/11. Grant is the first male nurse to serve as the president of the American Nurses Association. He recently led the formation of the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, condemning racism and injustices against communities of color. In 2022, Modern Healthcare named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare.
Courtney Lyder (1966-Present)
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Courtney Lyder was only one of five male nurses in his nursing school program. He advanced his career and became the dean of the UCLA School of Nursing in 2008, the first male to head any nursing program in the United States.
We applaud and respect all historical Black nurses who paved the way for the next generation to feel accepted and included. Take some time this month to learn about other black leaders in the nursing profession.