Joan Wilder: Journalist, Writer, Editor

Black Nurses Association Honors Nation's First African-American Nurse

On June 19, the New England Regional Black Nurses Association (NERBNA) named its first honorary member as part of its 35th anniversary celebration. The posthumous honor was given to Mary Eliza Mahoney, the nation’s first African-American professional nurse.

Mahoney was the natural choice for NERBNA’s honor. She was born in Everett, Mass., and graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Mass. An additional connection made NERBNA’s board feel as though Mahoney already were a member: In 1969, her alma mater became the Dimock Community Health Center, which is where NERBNA held its first meeting in 1972.

The progressive hospital, founded in 1862, was the first in the country to offer a training course for nurses. It produced its first graduate in 1873 — only six years before Mahoney earned her diploma.

NERBNA officials conceived the idea to honor Mahoney as they planned events to recognize National Nurses Week in May.
“In celebration of Nurses Week, we laid a wreath at the burial site of Mary Eliza,” says NERBNA President Margaret Brown, APRN, BC. “We integrated a memorial into our celebration to remember three members we lost this year, and we included Mary Eliza as one of our own.”

The petite Mahoney, who is said to have weighed no more than 90 pounds, was born in Boston in 1845. After deciding she wanted to become a nurse at the age of 18, she worked in several capacities at the New England Hospital for Women and Children until, at age 33, she was accepted into its new training program. According to hospital records, the curriculum was so rigorous that Mahoney was one of only three women in her class of 42 to graduate in 1879.

Mahoney was known for her proactive efforts on behalf of the nursing profession in general, for African-American nurses in particular, and for her 40-year nursing career. At a time when nurses were expected to do menial tasks, Mahoney is said to have refused to eat with the household staff at work. She also set standards of respect for her profession at a time when nursing was just beginning to emerge from the volunteer position it had previously occupied.

In many ways, Mahoney was ahead of her time and identified issues that remain central to equity for minority nurses. In 1908, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which merged into the American Nurses Association (ANA) 43 years later. A group of African-American ANA members convened during the association’s 1970 convention to identify issues central to African-American nurses. This meeting resulted in the founding of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) two years later. The need for a distinct African-American nursing organization — which Mahoney had identified in 1908 — still was essential 64 years later.

Today, the NBNA has 76 chapters nationwide, including NERBNA, and represents 150,000 African-American nurses. The association’s goals are to investigate, define, and determine the healthcare needs of black Americans and implement changes that address inequity in health care for all American minorities.
Although Mahoney co-founded the NACGN, she did not limit her professional activism to African-American causes. She was one of the original members of the predominately Caucasian Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became the ANA.

“Mary Eliza Mahoney was instrumental in changing the face of nursing,” said ANA President Rebecca M. Patton, RN, MSN, CNOR, in a statement prepared for Nursing Spectrum. “Her dedication to quality care has been an inspiration to generations of women and men. ANA is proud to honor her in our Hall of Fame, as well as with an award in her name that recognizes significant contributions in interracial relationships. We believe her work on behalf of women and minorities continues to provide an example of nursing’s commitment to equal opportunity.”

In addition to Mahoney’s status as one of the first nurses inducted into ANA’s Hall of Fame and as the namesake of one of its awards, she was honored by the United States Congress last year when a bill to honor Mahoney as a prominent American was introduced by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX).

“The entire Congress voted to approve the bill, and it’s included in the congressional record,” says Beth Glenn, communications director for Congresswoman Johnson.

In her remarks to Congress when introducing the resolution April 6, 2006, Congresswoman Johnson said, “I am a nurse by profession and understand the insurmountable obstacles that African Americans faced when entering and graduating from professional nursing schools in the pre-civil rights era. I am pleased to have been part of paying tribute to a woman who paved my way in making nursing an equal opportunity profession.”

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