From a cook, a janitor and a washerwoman: The inspiring story of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first black nurse in the United States

Mary Eliza Mahoney

When Mary Eliza Mahoney, R.N. became the first professionally educated African-American nurse in 1879, she changed the trajectory of American nursing forever. Mary Eliza Mahoney’s incredible journey to becoming the first black nurse in the United States of America is one of the most inspiring stories in black history. Mahoney was a cook, a janitor and a washerwoman before she began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

Her parents moved from the slave state of North Carolina to the free state of Massachusetts, where she was born in 1845. She grew interested in nursing as a career when she was a teenager, the oldest of three children. She started off as an untrained practical nurse but quickly realised she needed to earn more money.

She began working as a maid, laundress, cook, and occasionally as a nurse’s aide at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts, at that time. The hospital was also the first in the United States to offer a nursing programme, as it had only female doctors and aided women in their medical studies. Dimock Community Health Center is now the name of the facility.

Mahoney was admitted into the New England Hospital’s nursing school in 1878, at the age of 33, after working there for 15 years. The 16-month curriculum was extremely demanding, with 16-hour days. Students were expected to attend daylong lessons and lectures when they weren’t working on the hospital wards or doing private duty in patients’ homes. Only four of the 42 students who started the programme had the stamina and determination to finish it. She became the first black American professional nurse and joined the ranks of great nurses in history when she obtained her diploma in 1879.

Because of the persistent racial bias in public nursing, Mahoney spent the majority of her 30-year career in private duty nursing. Many of her patients came from well-known families, and they were blown away by her ability and professionalism. She was the director of a black orphanage in New York at the end of her tenure. She never married and devoted herself to her career.

Mahoney became a member of the newly created Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, subsequently known as the American Nurses Association, in 1896. (ANA). She helped found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and spoke at their first conference in 1909 as a result of their sluggish acceptance of black members. She addressed the disparities in nursing education for African-Americans at the time and requested a demonstration at the New England Hospital. The convention overwhelmingly backed her, electing her chaplain and bestowing lifetime membership on her. She worked for the group for many years to recruit minority nurses. Between 1910 and 1930, the number of African-American nurses more than doubled, thanks in large part to her efforts.

Mahoney continued to advocate for women’s equality even after she retired from nursing. She was one of the first women to register to vote in 1920, which comes as no surprise. Mary Mahoney died on January 4, 1926, at the age of 81, after a three-year fight with breast cancer. She was interred in Everett, Massachusetts.

Mary Mahoney left a legacy that is still relevant today as it was when she was alive. She advocated not only for women of colour but also for all minorities’ educational and professional rights. This is evidenced by the various prizes and honours she has received. The famous Mary Mahoney Award was established by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1936 to reward those who enhanced the welfare of minority groups in nursing. In 1951, the NACGN joined with the American Nurses Association (ANA), which decided to keep the award.

A Mary Mahoney Medal is also given out every year for nursing excellence. She was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583

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