Mary Mahoney - First Professional African American Woman Nurse in the U.S. & Civil and Women's Rights Activist
Mary Mahoney became the first African American woman to complete nursing school in the United States. She not only dedicated her career toward helping others in a medical sense, but used her civility, expertise and empathy to raise workplace standards for minorities, dissolve discrimination and encourage an atmosphere of equality.
Born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, Mary was the oldest of three children. Her parents were freed slaves who moved north from North Carolina before the Civil War to escape discrimination, which is something Mary would continue to fight against throughout her life.
Even in her adolescence, Mary knew she wanted to become a nurse. She spent 15 years working on New England Hospital for Women and Children until she was finally accepted into the hospital’s nursing school in 1878. After the rigid 16-month training curriculum, Mary graduated and became the first black woman to complete such a program in the U.S.
Working as a private care nurse among predominantly wealthy, white families, Mary’s professionalism and skill helped raise the status of minority nurses. Through preparedness, competence and know-how, Mary was able to distinguish herself, break down bridges and build relationships in the communities in which she served.
A Career and Life Full of Fighting for Right
Throughout her career, Mary made strides for women and minorities. She was inducted as one of the first African American members to the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which is now known as the American Nurses Association. Additionally, Mary founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. As the NACGN’s first annual convention, Mary spoke about the goals of the group, which included eliminating prejudice and applauding outstanding minority nurses and their contributions to the field.
And, it wasn’t just in medicine that Mary made her presence known. In 1920, following the ratification of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage, Mary was the first woman in Boston to register to vote.
Later Life and Lasting Contributions
Mary finished her nursing career on Long Island, New York, working as the director of the Howard Orphan Asylum, which offered a home to African American children and elderly.
In 1926, at the age of 80, Mary passed away, but even many years after her death, Mary’s contributions still carry weight today. In 1936, the NACGN named an award after Mary, and in 1951, the NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association - eliminating a division in races that Mary spent much of her life fighting for. In honor of her lasting contributions, the award continues to be given out to nurses for their work in advancing equality in the field.
Mary’s true professionalism, compassion and relentless strive for equality throughout her life earned her a well deserved spot in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.