During this month of Pride, which has become even more momentous with Black Lives Matters protests being welcomed around the globe, and in the midst of the essential role that healthcare workers are carrying out during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worthy to highlight and celebrate figures who signify the very finest beacons of humanity. This essay is the first of a new series shining a spotlight on historical figures, activists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845 – 1926) was the first qualified African American nurse in the United States. Born in Massachusetts (sources vary on whether she was born in Dorchester or Roxbury), Mahoney was the eldest of three children born to parents Peter and Mary Jane Mahoney, who are believed to have fled North Carolina to escape racial discrimination. During this period, Massachusetts was one of the main hubs of abolitionist activity, with the abolition of slavery authorized almost a century earlier, in 1783. Massachusetts was also the place where nursing as a reputable profession was developed and firmly established.
African American women had regularly served as untrained nurses under slavery, or while frequently employed in domestic services. However, it was only with the reputation that Florence Nightingale had earned during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) that modern nursing became the respectable occupation that it is today. Of course, there is a gigantic element of privilege here, for Nightingale was a white, European woman from a wealthy family and who studied under less advantaged nurses. Following Nightingale’s success, German born Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska founded the New England Hospital of Women and Children in 1862, which became the first institution in the United States to offer nursing training programs, beginning in 1972.
Zakrzewska believed in equal opportunities for women and Black people. However, it took nearly 16 years for the hospital to welcome its first African American student, who happened to be Mary Eliza Mahoney, initially working at the hospital as a washerwoman and laundress in her early 20s. Mahoney was 33 years old when she joined the 16-month program with around 40 other students. The program was arduous. Students worked from 6 am to 9 pm, and in addition to their various courses in medical, surgical, and maternal nursing duties, they were expected to wash and iron clothes, and clean and scrub the hospital wards.
Only three women, including Mahoney (who was the only African American student), completed the program, and she received her diploma on August 1st 1879, becoming the first African American graduate nurse. On graduating, Mahoney worked as a private duty nurse in the homes of patients, but maintained her professionalism in correcting those who believed that nurses must also perform the duties of nannies, servants and maids. She was employed for a while as the head of Howard Orphan Asylum in New York, which admitted orphaned and elderly people of colour.
The evolutionary history of the word nurse is an interesting one. Nurse has roots in the Latin nutrix, which means “nursing mother.” This was commonly applied to wet nurses, who would breast-feed children who were not their own. Eventually, this term reached England approximately during the 13th century, and this denoted a woman who supervises and cares for young children, or what fans of classic novels such as Jane Eyre would know as a governess! The origins and journey of nurse might help us to understand why it is such a gendered profession, since caregiving and nurturing are traits that are traditionally associated with women, no matter how archaic we recognize this view is.
Although Mahoney was supposedly a quiet character with a preference for privacy, I hope she doesn’t mind being the focus of this piece! Her story hasn’t been the focus of historians, but it is significant, nonetheless.
It is believed that Mahoney’s influence accelerated the number of professional African American nurses. From 1910 – 1930 the number of African American nurses rose from 2,000 to nearly 5,000. Indeed, this must also be attributed to the National Association of Coloured Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which was founded by Martha Minerva Franklin in August of 1908.
Franklin was confident that only through collective action could eliminate racism against Black nurses by white health care workers and patients alike. In 1933, the NACGN had only 175 members, but by 1949, that number had grown to 947. This was in no small part due to the determined work of NACGN’s members, who also challenged the rejection of Black nurses from military service. During World War II, 56 Black nurses were eventually admitted to the U.S Army Nurse Corps. That number rose to 300, although Black nurses were assigned inferior tasks, including serving in German prisoner of war camps, in comparison to their white counterparts.
The mission of NACGN was to “achieve higher professional standards, to break down discriminatory practices facing black nurses, and to develop leadership among black nurses.” In 1934, the first Black person to attain a master’s degree in nursing, Estelle Massey Riddle Osborne was elected president of the NACGN. She hired Mabel K. Staupers as the association’s first paid executive director, and together, Riddle and Staupers tirelessly lobbied for the inclusion of Black nurses into their professional association, the American Nurses Association (ANA). At the time, 16 southern states and Washington, D.C did not permit Black members.
During the NACGN’s first annual conference in Boston in 1909, Mahoney gave the inaugural welcoming address. Like Franklin, Mahoney also understood that nurses must unite in order to improve the conditions and status of nursing, and particular challenges faced by Black nurses. The NACGN dissolved in 1951 and fused with the American Nurses Association, which continues to award the Mary Mahoney Medal to individual nurses or groups of nurses who have made outstanding contributions to advancing the nursing opportunities to members of minority groups. She was inaugurated into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
In addition to her nursing and pioneering work, Mahoney was also an ardent advocate of women’s rights. Although Massachusetts gave Black men the right to vote around 1870, it was not until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the United States constitution in 1920 that all women who were U.S citizens could vote. At the age of 76, Mahoney cast her first vote in 1921. In addition to becoming the first African American graduate nurse, Mahoney was also one of the first women in Boston to register to vote.
Sadly, Mahoney developed breast cancer in 1923, and was treated at the New England Hospital of Women and Children, where she originally trained. She passed away on January 4th, 1926, at the age of 81.
It is important to remember Mary Eliza Mahoney’s achievements as an African American woman without perpetuating a stereotype of the “strong Black woman.” Yes, as the first African American woman to complete a nursing training program and become a professional nurse she possessed fortitude and strength of character. But she undoubtedly, as all humans do, had moments of frailty. Although very little is known about her personal life, Mahoney was purportedly engaged to an unidentified doctor who later jilted her.She never married or had children, which of course, could have been a deliberate choice of hers. However, early advocates of the nursing profession often had to choose between their careers and family life. Certainly, the discussion about women “having it all” continues to this day, although there is often an unacknowledged element of class underlying this conversation.
Furthermore, we can’t underestimate the pressure to excel that Mahoney must have experienced due to her position as the first and only African American student. Being part of an ethnic minority in a primarily white workplace undoubtedly has a demanding effect on workers, whether they are keen to prove racial stereotypes incorrect by working extra harder than their white counterparts, or have to wear a smile on overhearing glib racist comments from colleagues. This experience is articulated strikingly by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his nonfiction novel Between the World and Me, in which he writes that
“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to be “twice as good” which is to say “accept half as much.” No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.”
To this day, Black health care workers are at a disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. Deaths from Covid-19 are disproportionately high among Black and Latino communities in the United States. These communities are more likely to have jobs working on the frontline. In the United Kingdom, over 200 healthcare workers have died due to Covid-19, with 6 in 10, or 61%, of the dead from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (BAME)*. Statistics report that those in nursing roles make up 18% of all deaths recorded throughout the United Kingdom, which has reached 46,461 at the time of writing, according to Public Health England. According to London’s Royal College of Nursing, BAME health care staff are particularly endangered, with their own figures revealing that only “43% of BAME nursing staff had enough eye and face protection equipment.”
Health care workers are not invincible, they are regular people, just like me and you. They have parents, partners, children, pets, and dreams. They should not be martyrs, and their deaths from Covid-19 should not be viewed as just a hazard of the job they have freely chosen to do.
While we celebrate and consider Mahoney’s impact on the profession of nursing, let us not forget our present-day health care workers who are confronting the most dangerous global virus that we have encountered in our lifetimes, and the most at risk are from Black, Asian, and Latino communities.
Mahoney’s pioneering and nursing accomplishments are remarkable: she heralded the way for future African American nurses. But now we know that inclusion isn’t enough. In a recent letter from a respected friend of mine on the topic of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, he wrote that “maybe, racism is not saying that we’re different, but it is in not accepting it. We must realize and accept that no one is better or worse, but just different.” Pretending to be “colour-blind” just preserves white hegemony in the workplace and in wider society. By responding thoughtfully to race, gender, class, etc., and being open to discussions around the different experiences that accompany these identity markers, we might just be able to take a further step in establishing a fairer, more equitable culture.
* Note: In using the term “BAME”, which originated in the 1990s and designates Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the United Kingdom, the author does not intend to homogenise non-white communities. There is an ongoing conversation over the appropriateness of “BAME,” and as an ally who is always willing to learn, this author does not wish to cause any injury in employing this term, and is sincerely apologetic if that is the case.
Chayer, Mary Ella, ‘Mary Eliza Mahoney,’ The American Journal of Nursing Vol. 54, No. 4 (Apr., 1954), pp. 429 – 431.
Darraj, Susan Muaddi, Women In Medicine: Mary Eliza Mahoney and the Legacy of African American Nurses (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005).
Donahue, M. Patricia, Nursing, the Finest Art: an Illustrated History (St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1985).
Igus, Toyomi (ed) Book of Black Heroes: Great Women in the Struggle, Volume Two (New Jersey: Just Us Books Inc, 1991).
Ungvarsky, Janine, ‘Mary Mahoney (nurse),’ Salem Press Biographical Encyclopaedia, 2016.
Susan Muaddi Darraj, Women In Medicine: Mary Eliza Mahoney and the Legacy of African American Nurses (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005), p. 6.
Toyomi Igus, Book of Black Heroes: Great Women in the Struggle, Volume Two(New Jersey: Just Us Books Inc, 1991), p. 87.
Janine Ungvarsky,‘Mary Mahoney (nurse),’ Salem Press Biographical Encyclopaedia, 2016.
Darraj, p. 23.
Darraj, p. 63.
Darraj, p. 65.
Darraj, p. 74.
Mary Ella Chayer, ‘Mary Eliza Mahoney,’ The American Journal of Nursing Vol. 54, No. 4 (Apr., 1954), pp. 429 – 431, p. 431.
Darraj, p. 34.