Mary Eliza Mahoney is the First African-American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States. She was also the first black person to graduate from the American School of Nursing. Her contribution to the nursing profession positively redefined how many Americans perceived black people in the field.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Her parents were formerly enslaved people who had migrated to the North in search of a life free from racial discrimination. Mahoney was the eldest, with one of her siblings tragically dying in early childhood. Mahoney was a committed churchgoer and a devout Baptist, who attended the People’s Baptist Church in Roxbury. When she was ten, Mahoney gained admission into one of the first integrated schools in Boston. The Phillips School curriculum included teachings on values such as morality and humanity alongside general subjects like English, History, and Mathematics. This array of subjects is believed to have contributed to Mahoney’s early curiosity in nursing.
Mary Mahoney was not oblivious to the fact that there were many obstacles that might deter her from achieving her dream of becoming a nurse. Although there was an immediate emergence of nurses during the American Civil War, black women at the time faced crafted systemic barriers to training and opportunities to serve as licensed nurses. Nursing schools in the American South rejected applications from African-American women.
Mahoney started work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children at age 18, where she served as a cook, maid, and washerwoman for 15 years. She began her training as a nurse later. At the age of 33, Mahoney was the first black woman to be accepted into the Hospital’s 16-month training program in 1878. New England Hospital for Women and Children was the first institution in the US to introduce a formal nurse training course in 1872. The hospital was founded and staffed entirely by women physicians, and it’s possible that this other minority group – women in medicine – gave Mahoney the opportunity because they were also victims of prejudice.
In a class of 40 entrants, Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated as one of only four students to complete the program and became the first black professionally qualified nurse. For the coming decades, Mahoney worked mainly as a private duty nurse in the homes of wealthy white families. She was reputable for her efficient and meticulous tending approach and news about her spread across the US, and she began receiving calls for her services. Throughout her career, she took pride in her work, driven by the belief that it was important to prove that there was no place for discrimination in the nursing profession.
Mahoney actively participated in the activities of nursing organizations in the country. It is believed that she rarely missed the national nurses’ meeting. In 1896, she became one of the first black members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (later renamed the American Nurses Association). Mahoney recognized the importance of nurses to unite to improve the status of blacks in the profession. She was the co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) – an organization with the aim of advancing the interests of coloured nurses and eliminating racial discrimination in the profession. At the first NACGN convention in 1909, Mahoney delivered the welcome address in which she made a passionate plea against inequalities in nursing education and called for demonstrations to have more African-American students admitted to nursing schools.
In the early 1900s, Mart Eliza Mahoney was made the supervisor at the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children in New York after which she retired in Boston. She remained involved in activism for nurses’ and women’s rights. At the age of 76, she was one of the first women in Boston who registered to vote after the passing of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote.
After a three-year battle with cancer, on January 4, 1926, Mary Eliza Mahoney passed away at age 81. She was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.