Skip to main content

FunTimes Magazine

Celebrating 5 Black Nurses in History

May 12, 2022 11:00AM ● By Anand Subramanian

The struggle for access to education, career prospects, and, most importantly, freedom has defined the history of Black nurses in America. Even without formal schooling, early African American nurses served as healers in their communities. When Mary Eliza Mahoney, often regarded as the first Black nurse in history, graduated from nursing school and became the first African American nurse to be certified, the profession started to shift. African American nurses have continued to fight for equality in the profession since that day in 1869. In this post, we will honor 5 Black nurses that have had a positive impact on the nursing profession – and the globe.

Adah Belle Thoms

Adah Belle Thoms was appointed assistant superintendent of nurses at Lincoln Hospital in New York in 1906. While she would spend the following 18 years as an actress, her ethnicity prevented her from being awarded the title of director. Thoms co-founded and served as president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses from 1916 to 1923, and subsequently successfully pushed for Black nurses to participate in the American Red Cross Nursing and Army Nurse Corps during WWI. Thoms' book Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses was the first to trace the history of Black nurses in America. In 1976, she was one of the first honorees in the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame.

 Figure 1 - Portrait of Adah Belle Thoms. Source - Google

Mabel Keaton Staupers

Mabel Keaton Staupers immigrated to the United States from Barbados when she was just 13 years old. Staupers met prejudice and discrimination early in her career and vowed to make reforms that would result in equal rights for Black nurses, raise public awareness of existing gaps, and enhance access to fair health care services for Black individuals. Staupers was a nursing legend who received countless accolades, citations, and certifications. Her book, No Time for Prejudice, details the various challenges she faced in her battle for equal respect.

Figure 2 - Portrait of Mabel Keaton Staupers. Source - Google

Estelle Massey Osbourne

Estelle Massey Osbourne cleared the path for African American nurses to pursue studies and leadership positions in the nursing profession. When she started nursing school in St. Louis when just 14 of the 1,300 American nursing schools accepted Black students. She went on to Columbia University, where she became the first Black nurse in history to get a master's degree, before accepting a post as an assistant professor at New York University in 1946, making her the school's first Black faculty member. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, a member of the ANA Board of Directors, and a representative of the International Council of Nurses.

Figure 3 - Portrait of Estelle Massey Osbourne. Source - Google

Read 'World Health Day: 3 Ways to Show Support for Black Nurses':

World Health Day: 3 Ways to Show Support for Black Nurses

Black nurses have been an integral part of helping to slow the spread of COVID. Although medical workers are coping with the immense stress and emotional trauma of a pandemic, they miracu... Read More » 


Hazel Johnson-Brown

Hazel Johnson-Brown joined the military in 1955, barely seven years after President Harry S. Truman took steps to integrate the United States Armed Forces and eliminate prejudice. As her schooling progressed, she was chosen to head the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing and twice awarded Army Nurse of the Year. She was nominated as the 16th commander of the Army Nurse Corps and elevated to brigadier general in 1979, making her the first African American woman to hold the post. She returned to academia after retiring, becoming a professor of nursing at Georgetown University and George Mason University.

Figure 4 - Portrait of Hazel Johnson-Brown. Source - Google

Mary Eliza Mahoney

While numerous African Americans worked as nurses before her, Mary Ezra Mahoney is often regarded as the first Black nurse in history, having been the first to get a professional nursing license in the United States and the first to graduate from an American nursing school. Born to liberated slaves, she worked as a janitor, cook, washer lady, and nurse's assistant at the New England Hospital for Women and Children for 15 years. She enrolled in the hospital's nursing school at the age of 33 and graduated 16 months later. As the world's first Black nurse, she advocated for improved access to nursing school and campaigned against prejudice in the field throughout her career, helping to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908.

Figure 5 - Portrait of Mary Eliza Mahoney. Source - Google

Read 'Celebrating Seven Black Women in Medicine That You Should Know':

Celebrating Seven Black Women in Medicine That You Should Know

August is Women’s Month in South Africa and we’re ending it off celebrating seven inspiring Black women in medicine who are true trail-blazers. Read More » 


 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

Read more from Anand Subramanaian:

5 Historic African American Fashion Photographers You Should Know

5 Historic African American Fashion Photographers You Should Know

Let us honor five historic Black fashion photographers whose work defined Black fashion aesthetics and culture, while also giving voice to oppression. Read More » 

5 Best African Journalists

In this article, we will honor those journalists who have best-represented journalism on the African continent. Read More » 


Top 5 Black Contemporary Artists Who Are Making a Cultural Difference

Every form of art has established rules and borders around its genres in the creative spectrum, but contemporary artists have shattered those borders and redefined the meaning of art. Read More »