Mary Eliz Mahoney was the first professionally trained African-American Nurse in the United States. In addition to her dedication to the nursing profession, she is known for promoting equality for African-Americans and for women. A strong supporter of women’s suffrage, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.
Mahoney co-found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), in 1908, to support and promote African-American nurses. She received many honors for her work supporting African-American nurses. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of fame in 1976 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mary Mahoney’s Early life and path to Nursing
Mary Mahoney was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1846 to Charles and Mary Jane Mahoney, freed slaves. Her parents were originally from North Carolina. They moved north before the Civil War broke out, seeking to live in a place with less racial discrimination. When Mary Mahoney was 10, Massachusetts passed a law desegregating schools. Phillips School accepted her as a student, as one of the first desegregated schools in Boston.
As a teenager, Mary Mahoney was already interested in nursing. She started working for New England Hospital for Women and Children. This hospital was dedicated to providing healthcare for women and children. In fact, ,all of the physicians who worked there were also women. For 15 years, Mary Mahoney worked at the hospital. She acted in a variety of support positions, including cook, washerwoman, janitor, and as a nurse’s aide.
Finally, at the age of 33, Mary Mahoney was able to enter a 16-month intensive training program offered at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. The program was one of the first professional nursing programs offered in the United States. It consisted of 16 hour days spent in a combination of hands on experience with patients and attending lectures. This training was exhaustive. In fact, of the 42 students who enrolled at the same time only 4, including Mary Mahoney, managed to complete it in 1879.
After graduating, Mary Mahoney chose to pursue a career as a private nurse.
She found less racial discrimination there, than she found working as a public nurse. Working primarily in the homes of wealthy white Americans, she received requests from patients up and down the the East Coast. Known her patience, efficiency, and caring bedside manor, she became well respected and widely recognized in her field.
At the time when she became a nurse, it was common practice for nurses to eat with the household staff. They also, often, helped with household chores. Mary Mahoney, however, insisted on taking her meals separately in order to distance nursing from the household staff. This insistence lead to her employers taking her more seriously. It also helped establish nursing as a profession in general. In 1911, she became the director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum in Kings Park, Long Island, New York. The orphanage provided homes for both African-American children and African-American elderly.
In 1896, Mary Mahoney was one of the original members of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada.
Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC) later became the American Nurses Association (ANA). Unfortunately, she did not find the organization welcoming to African-American members. This led her, along with co-founders Adah Belle Samuels Thoms and Martha Minerva Franklin, to create the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). It became an organization to encourage, support, and promote African-American nurses. At the NACGN’s first national convention in 1909, Mary Mahoney gave the opening speech. In her speech she addressed the inequalities African-American nurses faced in nursing education. Afterwards, the members of the NACGN voted to make her a lifetime member of the organization. They then appointed her as the chaplain for the organization.
After her retirement, Mary Mahoney shifted her focuses from promoting nursing in the African-American community to civil rights and women’s suffrage. After the 19th Amendment passed in August of 1920, at the age of 76, she was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston. She passed away on January 4, 2926 after fighting breast cancer for three years.
Mahoney’s legacy, especially the NACGN, continued to promote African American Women as nurses.
In 1936 the NACGN created the Mary Mahoney Award in her honor. After the NACGN merged with the ANA in 1951, the ANA continued the tradition recognizing nurses who promote diversity in nursing with this award. The ANA also included her as one of the first nurses to be inducted into the Nursing Hall of Fame when it was established in 1976.
Mary Mahoney was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. In addition, she has a number of health facilities and a lecture series at Indiana University Northwest named in her honor. One of the recipients of the Mary Mahoney Award was Helen Sullivan Miller. In 1986, Miller organized a fundraiser to put a memorial on Mary Mahoney’s graveside. This was a well overdue recognition of her contributions to nursing.
Other Amazing Firsts by African-American Women.
- Rebecca Davis Lee Crumpler, MD. – First African-American woman to receive her Doctor of Medicine (1864)
- Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman – First African-American and Native American Woman to get her Pilot’s License
- Octavia Butler – African-American Science Fiction Author
- Althea Gibson – African-American tennis player and 1st black athlete to cross the line of color in international tennis.
- Shirley Jackson, Ph. D. – First African-American woman to get a doctorate from MIT, the first to be awarded the National Medal of Science, and the second to get a PhD in physics.
- Katherine Johnson – African-American mathematician who worked for NASA and who’s orbital calculations were critical to the U.S. manned space flights.