As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to recognize the incredible contributions that black nurses have made to the nursing industry. Throughout history, black nurses have played an integral role in providing care, advocating for their patients, and paving the way for new medical breakthroughs. From the earliest days of professional nursing, black nurses have made significant strides in advancing the profession, and their impact is still felt today.
Mary Seacole (1805-1881)
Mary Seacole was a pioneering nurse who made significant contributions to the nursing industry during the 19th century. Mary Seacole faced significant obstacles due to her race and gender. However, she persisted in pursuing her passion for nursing and established herself as a skilled and compassionate caregiver. She broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations of women and people of color in the nursing profession. Seacole is known for her innovative approaches to nursing care. She used natural remedies, such as herbs and aromatherapy, in addition to traditional Western medicine. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Seacole traveled to the front lines to provide medical care to wounded soldiers. She set up her own field hospital, known as the “British Hotel,” where she provided food, medicine, and other necessities to injured soldiers. Her contributions were recognized by the British Army and she became a well-respected figure in the nursing profession. Seacole recognized the importance of education in the nursing profession and advocated for the training and education of nurses. Her legacy continues to inspire and influence the nursing profession today.
Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)
Harriet Tubman is one of the most celebrated and influential figures in history. Born into slavery, she later escaped to freedom and dedicated her life to liberating slaves through her heroic work on the underground railroad. However, what many people don’t know is that Harriet Tubman was also a nurse. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman served as a nurse for the Union Army. She cared for sick and wounded black soldiers.
Her work as a nurse earned her a great deal of respect from her peers, and she was later awarded a widow’s pension for her service by the United States government. Harriet Tubman’s selfless actions and courage have made her an inspiration for generations, and her legacy lives on in the healthcare industry and U.S. history today.
Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989)
Mabel Keaton Staupers was born in Barbados in 1890 and moved to the United States as a young woman. She became a registered nurse in 1917 and joined the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which was established in 1908 to provide support and advocacy for black nurses. Staupers quickly became involved in the organization’s activities, serving as its executive secretary from 1934 to 1948. At that time, the U.S. Army Nurse Corps did not accept black nurses, limiting their opportunities for professional advancement. Staupers saw this as a major barrier to the progress of black nurses and decided to take action. She organized a campaign to integrate the Nurse Corps, traveling across the country to lobby members of Congress, the military, and other influential leaders.
Her efforts paid off in 1945 when the Army Nurse Corps finally agreed to accept black nurses, followed by the Navy Nurse Corps in 1948. This was a major victory for the NACGN and for black nurses across the country, who now had access to new opportunities for education, training, and professional development. Staupers continued to work for the rights of black nurses throughout her career. She became the first black nurse to serve on the board of the American Nurses Association (ANA) in 1949, and used her position to advocate for the integration of nursing schools and the elimination of discriminatory practices in the nursing industry.
She retired in 1960 but continued to be active in nursing organizations and to advocate for the rights of black nurses until her death in 1989. Her legacy lives on as an inspiration to generations of nurses and healthcare professionals who continue to work for a more equitable and inclusive healthcare industry.
Mary Elizabeth Carnegie (1916-2008)
Mary Elizabeth Carnegie was a prominent nursing leader in the United States. She was one of the first African-American nursing leaders to achieve national prominence. She was a trailblazer in the field, dedicating her life to improving healthcare for minority populations and advocating for diversity and inclusivity in nursing education and practice. Carnegie earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York City, and later earned a Master’s degree from New York University. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Pittsburgh. Throughout her career, Carnegie held many influential roles in nursing, including serving as a professor of nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as the Director of the Division of Nursing at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Carnegie was a strong advocate for cultural competence in nursing education and practice, recognizing that cultural sensitivity and awareness were critical to providing quality care for diverse populations. She also advocated for increasing the representation of minority nurses in leadership positions. Carnegie was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1995. Today, her legacy continues to inspire nurses and nursing leaders to advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in healthcare.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown (1927-2011)
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was born in 1927 in Pennsylvania and grew up in a family of healthcare professionals. She earned her nursing degree from Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York City and later earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Villanova University and a Master of Arts in Nursing Education from Columbia University. In 1979, Johnson-Brown was appointed as the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, becoming the first black woman to hold this position. In this role, she was responsible for overseeing the healthcare of all Army personnel and ensuring that the nurses under her command were properly trained. Under her leadership, the Army Nurse Corps underwent significant modernization and expansion. She introduced new technologies and innovations in nursing practice, such as the use of computerized patient records and telemedicine. During her tenure as Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Johnson-Brown helped to establish the Army’s Combat Support Hospital System, which greatly improved the healthcare available to soldiers in combat zones. She also advocated for the inclusion of women in combat support roles, paving the way for greater gender equality in the military.
Johnson-Brown retired from the Army in 1983, but continued to be active in the nursing profession. She taught at George Mason University and Georgetown University and served as the President of the American Nurses Association from 1988 to 1990. In recognition of her many achievements and contributions, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1999.
Bernadine Lacey (1932-2021)
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1932, Lacey encountered racial segregation as a prevalent practice throughout much of her early life. She was among the few Black students to be admitted to the Gilfoy School of Nursing at Mississippi Baptist Hospital in Jackson, which she attended from 1959 to 1962. Lacey acknowledged the discriminatory treatment she faced, including how Black nursing students were forced to sit at the back of the class and often had separate clinical experiences from their white peers. Lacey went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in sociology from Howard University, and a doctoral degree from Teachers College, Columbia University.
Throughout her career, Lacey held numerous distinguished positions, including founder and professor at Western Michigan University’s School of Nursing and special assistant to Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, DC. Lacey co-founded Federal City Shelter in Washington, DC, one of the earliest nurse-managed health clinics for the homeless.
Lacey was acknowledged by the nursing community for her significant contributions. She was inducted as a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing in 1990, and the academy named her a Living Legend in 2014. In her honor, Western Michigan University established an endowed chair in community health nursing in 1998. Lacey received numerous awards, including the R. Louise McManus Medal from the Nursing Education Alumni Association of Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Pearl McIver Public Health Nurse Award from the American Nurses Association.
Ernest J. Grant (1958-Present)
Ernest J. Grant, born in 1958, is a nurse, researcher, and educator who has made significant contributions to the nursing profession. He has dedicated his career to promoting nursing education, advocacy, and diversity, and has been a leader in improving the health outcomes of marginalized communities. Grant began his career as a registered nurse in 1982 and has worked in various nursing roles over the years. He has been an advocate for nurses and nursing education, serving as the president of the American Nurses Association (ANA). He was named among Modern Healthcare’s 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare for 2022.
He received recognition as a global expert in burn-care and fire-safety and was honored with the Nurse of the Year Award in 2002 by President George W. Bush in acknowledgment of his efforts in treating burn victims from the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.
Black History Month provides an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of black nursing leaders to the nursing profession. These individuals have shown resilience, perseverance, and dedication in the face of systemic racism and discrimination. They have paved the way for future generations of nurses and inspired many to enter the nursing profession. As we celebrate their achievements and contributions, let us continue to strive for a more equitable and inclusive nursing profession, where diversity is embraced, and every nurse has an opportunity to succeed regardless of their race, ethnicity, or background.