During a recent rainy, late night commute home, I found myself on a deserted street. It felt like I was the only person alive (or at least awake) on earth. I looked up just as a digital billboard, perched high above a used car lot, was changing images. Suddenly, looking down at me as a beautiful yet somber face of a woman in an old-fashioned nursing outfit. The caption said, “Mary Eliza Mahoney, First African American nurse.”
I was intrigued. This was the first I’d heard of this amazing woman. Her presence made me feel less alone on that cold, wet road. I still had a few miles to go to get home, but the whole drive I kept repeating Mary Eliza Mahoney, so I’d remember her name long enough to Google her. It’s a good name. A substantial name.
When I got to my nice, warm, dry house, I changed into my fuzzy jammies (“Mary Eliza Mahoney, Mary Eliza Mahoney…”) sat in my recliner with my snuggly dachshund ensconced on my lap, and I Googled. The first thing I learned was that there are very few images of Ms. Mahoney. The one below is the same one that was on the billboard. She looks so young, and so determined. Given that she was born in 1845, though, limited photographs are par for the course.
She was born near Boston to freed slaves who had come up from North Carolina before the American Civil War, hoping to live somewhere with less racial discrimination. I suspect they instilled that strong desire in their child. She attended one of the first integrated schools in the country, through the 4th grade. She was 15 when the civil war started, and she saw the need and the value of nurses during that conflict. She decided at age 18 that she wanted to be a nurse. The war didn’t end until she was 20 years old. That part of history must have been extremely formative for her.
Her pursuit of nursing didn’t take a straight line, but you can tell that it always remained her goal. At 18, She got a job at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, and worked there for 15 years. As a janitor. And a cook. And a maid. And a washerwoman. She worked 16 hours a day.
Finally she was able to become a nurse’s aide. Then, at the age of 33, she was admitted to a new program, the first in the nation, that that very hospital had started to train nurses. Although it was easier for African American women to pursue higher education in the North than in the South, it was still rare. It is expected that she was admitted to the program due to her 15 year relationship with that institution.
The 16 month program was grueling to say the least. She attended 12 hours of lectures a day, and got another 4 hours of hands on experience. Then she became a private duty nurse, in charge of six patients on the various wards. She got 1 to 4 dollars a week for that, a portion of which was returned to the hospital for tuition. Of the 44 women that started the program, they began dropping by the wayside one by one, including Mary’s sister. In the end, there were 4 graduates, and Mary was one of those. In 1879, she became the first African American registered nurse in the nation. I hope her parents lived to see that.
She decided to avoid public nursing, because there was a lot of discrimination there. Oddly enough, she preferred being a private nurse in the homes of wealthy white families. She developed an excellent reputation for being efficient, patient, and caring. At the time, many African American nurses were treated as though they were servants rather than trained professionals, so she tended to avoid the staff, eating alone in the kitchen.
As a successful nurse, her goal then became to abolish discrimination in nursing, and toward that end, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1909, and was the keynote speaker at their first convention. The association’s goal was to support and recognize the accomplishments of outstanding nurses, particularly those who were minorities.
After decades as a private nurse, she became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for black children, and remained so until 1912. She retired from nursing after 40 years, which is even more impressive when you consider that she didn’t graduate from nursing school until she was in her early 30’s.
In her retirement, she focused on women’s suffrage, and in 1920, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston. She died of breast cancer, after a 3 year battle, when she was 80. That was in 1926, a little over a year before my mother was born. (Ma would have turned 94 today. Waving skyward.)
Mary Eliza Mahoney was obviously a determined, goal-oriented, hard-working, strong, intelligent woman. I would have been proud to know her. There may not be many photographs of her, but she certainly has made her mark.
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