On August 1, 1879 Mary Eliza Mahoney made nursing history by becoming the first African-American graduate nurse in the United States.
Mary Mahoney was born on May 7, 1845 in the Dorchester section of Boston. She was the oldest of three children. At eighteen, she began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children as a cook and cleaning -woman. At the age of 33, Mary was accepted as a student nurse in that same hospital. It was a very strict and intense program lasting 16 months. In the end, Mary would be one of only four student nurses who were able to graduate from the program in 1879. The course had begun with 42 entrants.
Because of her skill and dedication she opened the pathway for more African-American women to be admitted to the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s student nurse program despite the heated racism arguments that were present in many American nursing schools at this time. By 1899, they had graduated five other African-American nurses.
After graduation, Mary registered with the Nurses Directory at the Massachusetts Medical Library and began working as a private duty nurse. Mary Mahoney’s reputation for proficiency steadily grew as she began to receive many positive referrals from clients and patients. Never married, she often treated her patients like family. Families that employed Mahoney praised her calm and quiet efficiency. Her professionalism helped raise the status of all nurses. For the next thirty years she worked all over the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Mary received requests from patients as far away as New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina.
Because of the disparity between black nurses and their white counterparts, Mary Mahoney became involved in creating the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. She delivered the welcome address at that organization's first annual convention, in 1909. In that speech, Mahoney passionately called out the inequalities in nursing education and called for demonstrations to have more African American students admitted to nursing school. After this speech Mary was elected to be association chaplain of NACGN and was given a lifetime membership.
For the next decade, Mahoney helped recruit nurses to join the NACGN and continued to advocate for quality nursing educations for African-Americans. She began a great wave of change for equality among nurses that continued to grow even after her death. In 1910, the number of African-American nurses within the United States was about 2,400. Within 20 years that number would more than double.
In addition to her work with the NACGN, she took the position of director at the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black children in Kings Park, Long Island in New York, in the year 1911. Mary was also actively involved in women's equality issues and became a strong supporter of the right to vote movement. When the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920, Mary Mahoney was 76 years old. She proudly became one of the first women in Boston to register to vote.
Mary contracted breast cancer in 1923. She died on January 4, 1926 and was buried in Everett, Massachusetts. In honor of her respected life the NACGN established an award in her honor in 1936, to recognize excellence and raise the status of black nurses. It has become common for those distinguished African-American nurses receiving the award to make a pilgrimage to her grave. The site is visited by many in order to honor one woman who blazed trials with pride in her race and her nursing skills.
Mary Eliza Mahoney. Nurses.info. January 8, 2008.
Nursing Pioneer, Mary Mahoney. The African American Registry. 2005.
Partners of the Heart. African American Medical Pioneers: Mary Eliza Mahoney. Public Broadcasting System. 2003.
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