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Famous Black Nurses in History

Written by: North Carolina Central University   •  Nov 13, 2023
Two Nurses Smiling

Famous Black Nurses in History

Black nurses have overcome unimaginable challenges in the last two centuries, and, in the process, they have changed nursing for the better in countless ways. Black nurses treated soldiers in the wake of crossfire during the Crimean War, brought liberated slaves back to health at the end of the Civil War, and founded organizations that continue to empower Black nurses to this day. These prominent figures shaped the profession for centuries and opened new doors for future generations. Some of the most well-known Black nurses in history include Mary Jane Seacole, Mary Eliza Mahoney, Harriet Tubman, and Adah Belle Thoms. These women saved numerous lives in their communities, served as advocates and teachers, and penned timeless books. Although many of the gifted nurses on this list lacked formal education, their will and determination are directly responsible for the current diversity in modern nursing programs .

A Brief History of Nursing

Despite their numerous contributions to the profession, Black nurses have been historically underrepresented. There is more diversity in nursing today than in the past, yet history books fail to mention some of the most prominent figures who left an indelible mark on nursing.

Mary Jane Seacole and Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale is often referred to as the mother of nursing in history texts due to the part she played in saving lives during the British Crimean War. Nightingale was born to a wealthy white British couple and received an impeccable education — something that was well out of reach for Black citizens in the mid-1850s. As such, when her efforts led to steep declines in death and infection rates among wounded British soldiers, she went down in history as the founder of the nursing profession.

Mary Jane Seacole was a Black nurse around the same time as Florence Nightingale but is not as well known. Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and, despite her lack of formal training, she was a talented healer. Later, she provided nursing care in the British Crimean War and traveled to Haiti, Cuba, and London to treat patients with everyday illnesses. Seacole offered free care to those who could not afford to pay, and she improved many lives with her simple, yet effective treatments. Both Nightingale and Seacole were essential to the foundation of the nursing profession as it exists today, but due to racism and discrimination, only Nightingale became a household name. In fact, if not for Mary Jane Seacole’s autobiography, her accomplishments may have been lost forever.

Other Famous Black Nurses

Like Mary Jane Seacole, many other Black nurses in history have not been properly fully recognized for their accomplishments and contributions to the profession. Learning more about them — and honoring the countless unnamed Black midwives and other healers who have saved lives for centuries — is important to creating and maintaining a diverse modern nursing workforce. Here are some famous Black nurses who followed in Mary Jane Seacole’s footsteps.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black woman to graduate from an American nursing school and earn a professional nursing license. She served as a nurse for decades and, at the same time, championed more accessible education for Black citizens, fought racism and discrimination in nursing programs, and helped found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908.

Estelle Massey Riddle Osborne

Estelle Massey Riddle Osborne was the first Black nurse in the United States to earn a master’s degree, and she was also the first Black teacher at Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. Of the 1,300 nursing schools in America at the time, only 14 of them were open to Black students. Osborne took on many leadership roles during her career, including serving as president of the NACGN, in a delegation to the International Council of Nurses, and as a member of the American Nursing Association (ANA) Board of Directors.

Harriet Tubman

Known primarily for the major role she played in the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman made some of her most important contributions to the nursing profession. Aside from providing care to those she rescued from slavery, Tubman went on to serve in the Union Army treating soldiers. After the war, Tubman spent her time caring for newly liberated Black Americans, and she founded the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Negroes in 1908.

Adah Belle Thoms

Adah Belle Thoms acted as the director of the nursing department at New York’s Lincoln Hospital for 18 years beginning in 1906. However, because Thoms was Black, the law forbade her from holding the director title. Instead, she was named the assistant superintendent of nurses. Later, she helped found the NACGN with Mary Eliza Mahoney.

Black nurses were allowed to serve in the Army Nurse Corps and American Red Cross during the First World War thanks to Thoms’ lobbying, and, with her many notable accomplishments, she was one of the first members inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1976.

The Value of Diversity in the Nursing Profession

Black nurses in history fought for racial equality in both education and employment. Because of their hard work, professionalism, and nursing skills, modern American health care facilities have grown and continue to grow more diverse to this day. This diversity is vital to the delivery of quality care for several reasons. It addresses health disparities between different ethnic groups, creates a more inclusive workplace, and makes health care more accessible for people of all races and backgrounds. Most importantly, diversity in nursing is vital to the fight against racism in today’s health care facilities. A 2022 survey conducted by the ANA found that, of the more than 5,600 nurses who responded, 63% had experienced an act of racism in the workplace personally. Learning more about Black nurses in history, their accomplishments, and their contributions to the profession is an excellent way to promote diversity and address racism in health care.

Make Your Own Impact on Nursing

Throughout history, Black nurses have been sadly underrepresented or completely unrecognized for their accomplishments. While Black nurses in history opened the doors with their incredible talent, it is up to the modern generation to continue breaking down the barriers to cultural diversity in nursing. Black nurses are just as important now as they were centuries ago, and, in some ways, they still face many of the same challenges. Learn more about how you can increase diversity in nursing and promote better patient care with North Carolina Central University’s online RN to BSN program .

Recommended Readings

Why Intercultural Competence in Nursing Matters

Oncology Nurse: Salary and How to Become One

Nurse Manager Salary and Job Description

Sources:

ANA Enterprise, “Promoting Diversity in Nursing and the Role of Leaders”

BlackDoctor.org, “7 Black Nurses Who Changed History Forever”

Britannica, Nursing

The Conversation, “Recognizing History of Black Nurses a First Step to Addressing Racism and Discrimination in Nursing”

Johnson and Johnson, “African-American Nurses Who Paved the Way”

Journal of Advanced Nursing, “Hidden Figures of Nursing: The Historical Contributions of Black Nurses and a Narrative for Those Who Are Unnamed, Undocumented and Underrepresented”

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, “The 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey”

Trusted, “Black History Month — Notable Nurses Throughout History”

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