Mary Eliza Mahoney
She made history as the first African American to study and work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States. Mary Eliza Mahoney was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Her parents, originally from North Carolina, were freed slaves. They moved north before the Civil War, where they would face less discrimination. Mary Eliza attended the Philips School, one of the first integrated schools in Boston.
From an early age, Mary Eliza knew that she wanted to be a nurse. For fifteen years, she worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, now known as the Dimock Community Health Centre, before she was accepted into its nursing school, the first in the United States. She was 33 years old when she was admitted.
After she received her nursing diploma, Mary Eliza worked for many years as a private care nurse. She worked for predominantly white, wealthy families who praised her for her efficiency. Her professionalism raised the bar for others in her profession, especially among minorities. She was recognized for her skills and preparedness. And this reputation earned her the respect of some of the families she worked for who insisted that she join them for dinner but she was a humble woman. She ate her meals with the household staff she worked with.
Her reputation opened many doors for Mary Eliza whose goal was to change the way of patients and their families thought of minority nurses. She wanted to abolish any discrimination that existed in the nursing field, believing that it had no place there and that all people should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams without any fear of racial discrimination.
Mary Eliza served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island, New York from 1911 to 1912. The asylum served as a home for freed colored children and the colored elderly and it was run by African Americans. It was at this institution that Mary Eliza ended her nursing career.
In 1896, Mary Eliza became one of the original members of Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC) which later became known as the American Nurses Association (ANA). In the early 1900s, the NAAUSC, a predominantly white association, did not welcome African American nurses into their association, so, Mary Eliza retaliated by founding a new and more welcoming nurses’ association with the help of other founders. In 1908, she was the co-founders of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Not surprisingly, this association did not discriminate against anyone and its goal was to support and congratulate the accomplishments in the registered nursing field and to eliminate racial discrimination in the nursing community. A year later, Mary Eliza spoke at the NACGN’s first annual convention and in her speech, she documented the inequalities in her nursing education and in the nursing education at the time. She was given a lifetime membership in the NACGN and a position of chaplain.
During her retirement, Mary Eliza was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage. In 1920, after women’s suffrage was achieved in the United States, she was among the first women in Boston who registered to vote. She was an active participant in the advancement of Civil Rights in the United States. She died in 1926 at the age of 80.
Notes to Women salutes this woman who was and still is an example of professionalism and champion for civil rights and women’s rights. She challenged discrimination against women of African Americans in nursing and proved that she had what it took to enjoy a very successful career and at the same time, transcend racial barriers. She held firm to the conviction that everyone should be able to achieve their dreams without having to deal with racial discrimination.
She was the first woman in the United States to graduate as a registered nurse. A pioneer for the nursing profession, she received many honors and awards and inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976 and to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mary Eliza Mahoney was the epitome of professionalism and an outstanding example for nurses of all races. In recognition of this, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936.
We are forever indebted to Mary Eliza for paving the way for the advancement of equal opportunities in nursing for minorities.