Notes on Black History Month

What We Have Learned Along the Way

For those joining us for the first time — welcome! To those who’ve joined us since day one, thank you for your commitment to diversifying our nursing history.

May this overview serve as a helpful guide and provide context to the forthcoming stories of Black nurses. Most importantly, may this be a companion guide to initiate a more critical history of Black nurses, nursing, and healthcare overall during the 96th commemoration of Black History Month.

Provident Hospital Nurses. Photo sourced from The Provident Foundation

Black History Month

Black History Month (February 1- March 1) was designated by the United States Congress in 1976, the nation’s bicentennial. The heritage month was designed to celebrate and honor the heritage, legacy, and contributions of African Americans in the United States. However, what we know as Black History Month was initially celebrated as “Negro History Week” 50 years prior. Historian and educator Carter G. Woodson conceptualized Negro History Week as an educational initiative in 1926. He believed “Not to know what one’s race has done in former times is to continue always a child.” Woodson sought to develop and share resources on Black history, initiate interest and the study of Black history, and create a forum and opportunity for educators to share information and ideas about the experiences of black people in the U.S.

Photo sourced from Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum

While Black History Month has manifested into an American tradition observed and celebrated inside and outside the Black community, it’s existence does not go without controversy as it is often promulgated as a single month to recognize the contributions and existence of a few select Black leaders and positioning of racism as a thing of the past. Yet, there is an opportunity to provide a more nuanced and contextualized understanding of the history and present-day experiences of Black people in the U.S., and in this context, Black nurses. Nursing, often viewed in an ahistorical profession, was indeed shaped by the social, political, and cultural doings of North American society. Professional nursing thrived as a result of novel innovations in infection control, advancements in nursing education, and professional organizing. All made even more possible with the unacknowledged labor of Black nurses. Since its inception, the U.S. and health care system benefited from the labor of Black nurses whether as wet-nurses, healers, experimental subjects during the period of enslavement, midwives guiding new life into the world of both Black and white birthers, battle nurses during periods of conflict and war, or today as “frontline” healthcare workers pushed to the edge. And against the backdrop of racism, discrimination, ever-changing requirements to care, Black nurses with a veil of perseverance, dedication, and bravery emerged as Black Angels”, protectors and guardians of our healthcare system.

Battles of Care

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole, Jamaican-British “doctress”, arguably serves as the pinnacle to the history of Black nurses. Born in Jamaica in 1805, Mary’s father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a “free person” and traditional healer who also ran a lodging house. A student of her mother’s work, Mary traveled throughout the Caribbean to Bahamas, Panama, Haiti, and Cuba caring for those ill and injured using traditional remedies collected during her travels. Hearing of the poor conditions and lack of medical care for soldiers of the Crimea War, Mary traveled to England and volunteered to serve as an army nurse, where she was rejected by the British government and Florence Nightingale, the proclaimed “mother” of American nursing. Continuing in the footsteps of her mother, Seacole established a hotel for sick and recovering soldiers, while also making visits to the battlefield.

Mary Seacole. Photo sourced from National Geographic

Nurses in the Antebellum Era

Seacole’s undaunted contributions represent a long legacy of enslaved women who provided nursing care during the 18th and 19th century on plantations. With nearly 4 million enslaved people imported into Africa, they brought with them pieces of their past in forms of remedies and herbal cures. “Enslaved women grew herbs, made medicines, cared for the sick, prepared the dead for burial, and attended births.” (Fett, p.5) Historian Sharla M. Fett in her book Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations details the complex interactions of enslaved men and women white plantation owners and physicians that shaped healthcare in the Antebellum South. Despite the success of Black healers and their remedies, Plantation owners often downplayed their success as mere “chance” or “luck”, yet these remedies were found in the family home remedy books labeled as an “African Cure”.

Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens extends this narrative in her book Medical Bondage: Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. Here, through a series primary and secondary sources of archival records and medical journals, Dr. Owen explores the birth of American Gynecology at the hand of white physician, Dr. James Marion Sims on a slave-farm in Mount Meigs, Alabama. Dr. Sims, who is memorialized as the father of American gynecology, experimented on enslaved Black women who also served as his surgical nurses, presumably against their will. Most significantly, she stresses the contradiction of Black women’s inferiority yet their use as test subjects, in which the early successes of gynecology were created. What comes from the stories of enslaved women who served as nurses and healers within and outside the plantation are narratives of sexual violence, exploitation, and shaping of the “superhuman” black body, but there also lies a narrative of resistance and agency.

Civil War and Reconstruction

At the start of the American Civil War in 1861, a battle on the status of slavery, there were no officially “trained” nurses and in response men and women from the North and South volunteered. The historical record of enslaved Black nurses is scarce, but there is a legacy of three early nurses, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Susie King Taylor who demonstrate the new possibilities and pathways for Black nurses through their efforts in the Civil War.

Sojourner Truth, born an enslaved woman in New York, was freed as a result of the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827. Truth, an abolitionist, underground railroad agent, and women’s rights advocate served as a nurse in the Freedman’s Relief Association which helped recently freedmen find housing and employment. Harriet Tubman, commonly known as the “Conductor of the Underground Railroad” volunteered as a nurse in the Civil War in South Carolina and later as head matron in a hospital in Virginia. Susie King Taylor volunteered her services as a nurse to care for wounded soldiers in the Union during the Civil War. These three nurses received no pay while they worked and only years after their service received either compensation or recognition. The close of the Civil War coincided with the emergence of nursing as a nascent profession that required training. Nurses were released of their duties in the military, as there was no longer an impending need for their service, but by 1893, the same hospital infrastructure established during the war and through the Freedmen’s Bureau would go one to become the first school in the country to train Black nurses in a university setting.

As the U.S. expanded their global influence, the onset of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and high mortality rates of U.S troops from infectious diseases shifted the perspective of necessary military personal. In need of caretakers for soldiers suffering from typhoid, yellow fever, and various infectious diseases, Congress requested professional nurses with a salary of $30 a month. About 80 Black nurses helped fill these roles. Namahyoke Sockum Curtis, a Black contract nurse, is reportedly the only Black nurse identified by name in the records and is buried in Arlington national Cemetery (Carnegie, p.15)

The involvement of Black nurses in these wars display the willingness of Black women to defend their “freedom.” These efforts also indicate the early beginnings of integration and reshuffling of gender expectations within the military. The performance and efforts of such brave nurses ultimately led to the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901, though the acceptance and integration of Black nurses would take decades to fulfill.

Nursing Education

While the turn of the late 19th and 20th century saw an increase of nursing schools or “nurse training programs,” most programs implemented quota limits for the admission of Black nurses or excluded them altogether. The New England Hospital for Women and Children, incorporated in 1863, limited their admission to “one Negro and one Jew” (Carnegie, p.17). Mary Mahoney, America’s first professionally trained Black nurse successfully graduated in 1878. While Black women for generations were responsible for care work, the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision only sanctioned the use of racial segregation and this extended to nurse training programs, which limited the educational opportunities available. Starting in 1903 states began to adopt the Nurse Practice Act to standardize the nursing profession with educational accreditation and licensing registration. But many states subsequently refused to permit Black nursing school graduates to even apply for their nursing license registration.

Photograph from the Mercy Douglass Archives from the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing

With racism and discrimination permeating through healthcare delivery and opportunities for trained Black health professionals, a national network of Black hospital and training schools increased between 1890 and 1920, as detailed in Hines’ Origins of the Black Hospital and Nurse Training School Movement. By the 1920’s there were over 200 Black hospitals and training schools including, but not limited to: Spelman Seminary in Georgia (founded in 1886), Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx (founded in 1898), Provident Hospital School of Nursing in Chicago (founded in 1891), Dixie Hospital Training School in Virginia (founded in 1891), and Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia (founded in 1893). With the support of philanthropic organizations, the Black Church, and donations from Black organizations, these institutions not only delivered services to Black patients, but also created training and educational pathways for Black nurses.

A Fight for Representation and Acceptance

As opportunities for education and employment increased, professional organizations and alumni association also developed. Fifty-two nurses under the leadership of Martha Minerva Franklin, formed the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. Two years prior, Franklin surveyed the conditions of Black nurses as a whole and concluded that while the American Nurses Association (ANA) was open to Black nurses for membership, state-level memberships (which was required to join the ANA) was closed to Black nurses. The NACGN, consequentially sought to “to advance the standards and best interests of trained nurses, to break down discrimination in the nursing profession, and to develop leadership within the ranks of black nurses.” The organization established a national registry to assist nurses find employment throughout the country and published an official newsletter beginning in 1928. Most significantly, though, was NACGN’s push for integration and acceptance of Black women into professional nursing.

Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Inc., a professional sorority for Black nurses was organized in Washington D.C in 1932 with the Alpha chapter established in Washington D.C. at Freedman’s Hospital. In response to the lack of employment and professional opportunities, Chi Eta Phi functioned with the goal of elevating the plane of nursing and increasing interest in the field of nursing for Black individuals.

Photo sourced from Wikipedia

During World War I, as President of the NACGN, Adah Thoms campaigned for Black nurses acceptance into the American Red Cross as this was a presumed path for entry into the U.S. Army Nurse Corps to support war time efforts. They were not permitted to actually join and serve until 1918 during the flu pandemic, though they supported war time efforts through various avenues and other organizations. The Red Cross, with guidance from the Surgeon General denied entry of Black nurses. The Surgeon General reported that they would be unable to provide necessary (segregated) lodging. By late 1918, Red Cross nursing leader Jane Delano, registered 77 Black nurses to the Red Cross, but they were not assigned to duty, likely due to the anti-black racism of officials who did not fathom serving alongside a Black woman. Three nurses, Aileen Cole, Susie Boulding, and Clara Rollins were sent to care for influenza patients in West Virginia. With the Spanish flu pandemic raging, the army eventually called to 18 nurses to serve at Camp Sherman in segregated wards. The service of these 18 nurses was the catalyst to Black nurses integration into the Army Nurse Corps, that would eventually occur in World War II in 1946 under the NACGN presidency of Mabel K. Staupers. Historian Charissa J. Threat, in Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps, examined the battle for Black nurses and white men integration into the Army Nurse Corps and notes how shifting perspectives around race and gender, when combined with the traditional values of the nursing profession, ultimately re-defined who could be a nurse.

The NACGN’s greatest efforts in its later years of existence focused on full integration of Black nurses into the ANA. Beginning in the 1940's, a few states began to accept Black nurses into their organization such as the North Carolina State Nurses Association. However, after a series of proposals, meetings, and appointments, the ANA merged with the NACGN eventually leading to the dissolution of the NACGN in 1951. Desegregation of the ANA, unfortunately did not mean full integration. At a national ANA convention in Miami, Florida, Dr. Lauranne Sams called for a caucus to discuss the concerns of Black nurses. The group identified a need to address the specific health concerns of the Black community, needs of Black nurses, and voiced concern for lack of Black representation in leadership roles and opportunities to partake in meaningful decision making. A year later, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) was formed with Dr. Sams as the first president. The NBNA, which still exists today, seeks to address the specific health needs of the Black community through research and policy, recruit Black nurses, collaborate with other Black organizations, and shape nursing education.

From Past to Present

Currently in the U.S., Black nurses make up about 11% of the nursing workforce. Their service, past and present, is critical to providing healthcare not just within Black communities, but for the nation. Black nurses makeup a small portion of the nursing workforce, yet their contributions are invaluable to addressing health inequities and systemic injustices in healthcare. Unfortunately, the need to diversify the workforce has not gone without struggle. Black nurses, along with other nurses of color, continue to face racism and discrimination deeply embedded throughout their education and careers. As indicated in the National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing, “63% of nurses surveyed say that they have personally experienced an act of racism in the workplace with the transgressors being either a peer (66%), patients (63%), or a manager or supervisor (60%).” Stemming from a legacy of unrequited service and commitment to shaping the profession, Black nurses continue to expand the boundary of who gets to be an American nurse.

Build Your Library

The core texts which prepared us to profile nurses this month are listed here. We profusely thank these authors, as their contributions demonstrate the undeniable benefit of interdisciplinary collaboration in advancing what we know about the history of our field.

  • Nursing Civil Rights : Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps by Charissa J. Threat
  • Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890–1950 by Darlene Clark Hine
  • The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1854–1994 By Mary E. Carnegie

As we attempt to unearth names and histories of the nurses we should know, we often find ourselves in corners of the internet to locate obscure sources — as such, we also thank the determined nurses and scholars who created online archives of their peers in the earlier internet days!

Should you know of books, articles, resources, relevant historical context — or even corrections — that should be added here, always feel free to contact us and we will update this document: email nursesyoushouldknow@gmail.com.

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