Celebrating Black History Month: Mary Elizabeth Mahoney, RN

By John Peck |  February 8, 2017

Our clinic has historically held a primary place for nurses to use their skills in providing free medical care to the Elmhurst community since we began our mission. Nurses were with us before doctors were here. And since February is Black History Month in the US, we'd like to pay tribute to our nurses by recalling the history of an African-American nursing 'trailblazer'.

Mary Elizabeth Mahoney (1845-1926) apparently had nursing 'in her blood' at an early age. But her skin color was a detriment to a free reign early on in her profession, despite living in the 'more free' north Boston area when her parents, who were freed slaves, moved there after the Civil War. Mary always wanted to be a nurse, and chose to persevere and pursued nursing education and experience. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and children for 15 years before being accepted into its nursing school, which was the first in the United States...Mary was 33 years old when she was admitted in 1878.

Her education included 'field training' in hospital wards, attending lectures under the tutelage of doctors, and working as a private-duty nurse. By 1879, she became a registered nurse — the first African-American to do so in the United States. She continued her service by working as a private-duty nurse to prominent white families in the Boston area, gaining their respect for her professionalism and service.

Some didn't see Mary as an equal in the profession, so she worked to abolish the professional discrimination as well as the racial discrimination. While she was a charter member of what later became the American Nurses Association, they later rejected her membership...so she helped form another association, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. Throughout the years, she continued her pursuit of excellence in nursing care, and to eliminate discrimination among minority nurses. Mary also became a 'suffragette' in the quest for women's voting rights in the Boston area, becoming one of the first women in the Boston area to register to vote in 1920, as well as campaigning for civil rights.

And, as justice and honor would have it...many years later, the American Nurses Association reversed course, recognizing her accomplishments by continuing an annual award in her honor after the ANA merged with the NACGN.

Mary Mahoney died in 1926 after a long and productive life elevating the nursing profession. She was inducted into the ANA's Hall of Fame in 1976, and into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993. Mary, we look up to you to 'nurse' our sensitivities to the mighty contributions of nursing care in all 'colors', as we ready to open our doors as a primary-care center!