“Incredible Black Women You Should Know About” – The Series
Mary Eliza Mahoney – The First African American Nurse
(May 7, 1845 – January 4, 1926)
By DonnaMarie Woodson
This article, from the November 2021 edition of the Charmeck Chronicle, is published here with permission of the author.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in 1845 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Mahoney’s parents were freed slaves, originally from North Carolina, who moved north before the American Civil War in pursuit of a life with less racial discrimination.
Ms. Mahoney was the elder of two children; with one sibling dying early on as a child. She was
admitted into the Phillips School at age 10, one of the first integrated schools in Boston, and stayed from first to fourth grade. Phillips School was known for teaching its students the value of morality and humanity, alongside general subjects such as English, History, Arithmetic, etc. It is said this instruction influenced Mahoney’s early interest in nursing.
Mary knew early on that she wanted to become a nurse; possibly due to seeing the emergence of nurses during the American Civil War. Black women in the 19th century often had a difficult time becoming trained and licensed nurses. Nursing schools in the South rejected applications from African American women, whereas in the North, though the opportunity was still severely limited, African Americans had a greater chance at acceptance into training and graduate programs.
The New England Hospital for Women and Children, founded by Marie Zakrzewska on July 1, 1862, became the first institution to offer a program allowing women to work towards entering the healthcare industry, which was predominantly led by men.
Mary was admitted into a 16-month program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now the Dimock Community Health Center) and In 1879, at the age of 33, Ms. Mahoney was among the three graduates out of the 40 students who began the program. Mary received her nursing certification, making her the first African American in history to earn a professional nursing license.
It is presumed that the administration accepted Mary, despite not meeting the age criteria (between the ages of 21 and 31), because of her connection to the hospital through prior work as a cook, maid, and washerwoman there when she was 18 years old. Ms. Mahoney worked nearly 16 hours daily for the 15 years that she worked as a laborer.
Mary’s training required her to spend at least one year in the hospital’s various wards to gain universal nursing knowledge. The work within the program was intensive and consisted of long days with a 5:30 A.M. to 9:30 P.M. shift, requiring Ms. Mahoney to attend lectures and lessons to educate herself through the instruction of doctors in the ward. These 12 hour lectures classes consisted of nursing in families, physiological subjects, food for the sick, surgical nursing, child-bed nursing, disinfectants, and general nursing.
Mary Mahoney worked as a nurse for the next four decades. During her 40-year career she attracted a number of private clients who were among the most prominent Boston families. The diminutive five-foot tall, ninety-pound Mahoney devoted herself to private nursing due to the rampant discrimination against black women in public nursing at the time.
Her reputation was impeccable as she worked all across the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. In addition, Mary served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black children in Long Island, New York.
Ms. Mahoney was an original member of (NAAUSC), the predominately White Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada – known later as the American Nurses Association (ANA). In the early 1900s, the NAAUSC did not welcome African-American nurses into their association. In response, Mahoney co-founded a new, more welcoming nurse’s association, with the help of Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah B. Thoms. In 1908, she became co-founder of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). This association did not discriminate against anyone and aimed to support and congratulate the accomplishments of all outstanding nurses, and to eliminate racial discrimination in the nursing community.
In 1909, Mahoney spoke at the the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’ first annual convention, which became the first time that Martha Minerva Franklin and Adah Belle Samuels Thoms met Mary Mahoney in person.
The NACGN struggled in their early stages with only 26 female nurses in attendance of their first national convention. In her speech, Mary recognized the inequalities in her nursing education, and in nursing education of the day. The NACGN members gave Mahoney a lifetime membership in the association and a position as the organization’s chaplain. In 1951, the NACGN merged with the ANA.
After over 40 years of nursing service, Mary retired and turned her focus to women’s equality. The progression was natural given her fight for minority rights during her professional career. In 1920, she was among the first women to register to vote in Boston, Massachusetts.
Mary Mahoney died on January 4, 1926, at the age of 80, after a three-year battle with breast cancer. She was laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts.
Ten years after her death, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney award, which is given to women who contributed to racial integration in nursing. After the NACGN was dissolved in 1951, the ANA continued presenting the award. In recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups, the award is still given out today.
The national African American sorority, Chi Eta Phi, erected a monument of Mahoney after restoring her gravesite in 1973. Nurses from across the country came to remember Mary Mahoney. Three years later, Mary Eliza Mahoney was inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mary Mahoney was not just an inspiration to African American women, but to the entire nursing profession. Her drive and passion for nursing helped shape the standards at which the profession has come to expect and continues to develop.