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7 Black Nurses Who Changed History Forever

The original version of this post was first published on BlackDoctor.org

Nurses are oftentimes unsung heroes that are left in the shadows of doctors who get much of the credit.

The group of nurses featured below left a beautiful mark on the history of healthcare that could never be erased. Many times, in the face of adversity, these women gave their all to their patients and careers, many times behind the scenes and without recognition. That’s why WE honor them. We have seen their effort, and their history-making triumphs that have laid the groundwork for many nurses today. Take a look below at just some of the groundbreaking nurses throughout history.

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(Estelle Massey Osborne / Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7. Estelle Massey Osborne

Born in 1901, Estelle Massey Osborne became the first black woman to earn a master’s degree in nursing. But this isn’t the only fact that distinguishes her. Throughout her career, Osborne dedicated herself to improving the options available to black nurses across the country. Her goal was to ensure that black nurses received just as high-caliber an education as their white counterparts.

In 1943, Osborne became a consultant for the National Nursing Council for War Services and helped to get the color ban lifted from nursing in the US Army and Navy. She also assisted in almost doubling, within two years, the number of training schools that would accept black students.

Then in 1945 she became the first black member of New York University’s teaching faculty and used her position to continue to fight for black nurses’ rights. Osborne’s legacy lives on in the form of the Estelle Massey Osborne Scholarship for registered black nurses interested in studying a nursing master’s degree full time.

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(Jessie Sleet Scales / Photo credit: Blackpast.org)

6. Jessie Sleet Scales

Another pioneering African-American nurse was Jessie Sleet Scales, who in 1900 became America’s first black public health nurse. Trained in Chicago, Scales moved to New York and, after trying unsuccessfully for months to find a job, became a district nurse for the Charity Organization Society.

Scales was originally hired to deal with tuberculosis in the city’s black community, which had few healthcare options and a deep-seated resistance to formal medical care. Her work quickly expanded to include everything from childbirth and chicken pox to heart disease and cancer. Her workload was staggering: As she outlined in a 1901 article for the American Journal of Nursing, her caseload in a single two-month period included 156 calls on 41 families.

Scales’ work inspired other organizations to hire black community health nurses, some of whom were selected on her recommendation. She was a pioneer in what we now call culturally appropriate care.

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(Lillian Holland Harvey / Photo credit: Pinterest.com)

5. Lillian Holland Harvey

Registered nurse Lillian Holland Harvey is best known for her work in education. She became Dean of Tuskegee University School of Nursing in 1948 and held the position for nearly 30 years. During her time as Dean, Harvey was pivotal in establishing and offering Alabama’s first Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. The program offered students a strong education, complete with hands-on hospital experience – both locally and out of state.

Harvey believed that everyone deserved professional acknowledgement, regardless of his or her background. Even the harsh segregation rules of the 1940s didn’t deter her, and she went on to achieve a number of honors. Harvey’s graduates say that she impacted their lives strongly and led by example. She showed them the importance of advancing their education, striking a balance between work and family life, and finding ways to get involved with their local communities.

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(Mable Keaton Staupers / Photo credit: Blackpast.org)

4. Mable Keaton Staupers

Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890–1989), originally from Barbados, became a U.S. citizen in 1917 and studied nursing at Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C.. Like Scales, a major focus of her early career was on battling tuberculosis, which had hit the black community especially hard. She helped to establish the inpatient tuberculosis clinic at the Booker T. Washington Sanatorium and later became executive secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis Committee.

Staupers also worked hard to improve the status of African-American nurses. During World War II, she led the campaign to integrate black nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, meeting with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to explain the folly of the president’s plan to draft white nurses while black nurses were either unemployed or allowed to treat only POWs and black soldiers. Thanks to that effort, President Franklin Roosevelt ended racial enlistment restrictions for Army nurses in 1945.

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(Harriet Tubman / Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was an all-round inspirational figure who risked her life countless times to free others from the same slavery into which she had been born. But the 300 or so slaves she led to freedom weren’t the only people’s lives she changed. Tubman served as a nurse during the American Civil War and used her knowledge of herbal medicine to treat wounded soldiers on the island of Port Royal off the coast of South Carolina.

Using traditional remedies, Tubman cured many soldiers of dysentery and smallpox. And because she didn’t contract smallpox herself, stories spread that she had been blessed by God.

Tubman’s work was so outstanding that one Union general pushed for Congress to give her a pension for her efforts. After the war was over, Tubman continued to nurse others and helped found a home for the elderly.

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(Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown, RN, Ph.D. / Photo credit: Rowan University

2. Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown, RN, Ph.D.

When Hazel W. Johnson-Brown tried to gain admission to a local hospital, she was told, “We’ve never had a black person in our program, and we never will.” Fortunately, despite the racial obstacles in her path, Johnson-Brown persevered and did become a nurse.

She studied at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in 1950. She then joined the army, working in Japan and later Korea during her service. In the 1960s, she also trained Vietnam-bound surgical nurses.
Johnson-Brown’s abilities in the operating theater led to her climbing the ranks in the army. She eventually became the first black woman to be promoted to brigadier general and the first to head the 7,000-strong US Army Nurse Corps.

As well as her Harlem diploma, Johnson-Brown achieved a nursing bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and an educational administration PhD. And to top it all off, she was awarded a number of distinguished military decorations in addition to being named Army Nurse of the Year twice.

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1. Sojourner Truth

Isabella Baumfree – better known by her self-given name Sojourner Truth – was born into slavery in Ulster County, New York in 1797. And although she would later gain fame as an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Truth was originally a nurse who served a family named the Dumonts. She was promised her freedom a year before the 1827 Emancipation Act, but when her owner changed his mind, she fled with her young daughter Sophia in 1826.

In her later years, Truth worked at the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington D.C., where she strove to improve the cleanliness and quality of care. But perhaps most notably, Truth used her strong voice and eloquent speeches to urge Congress to finance training programs for nurses.

In an age before any formal nurse training existed, Truth’s perception and advocacy of the need for such education remain truly legendary. And all this from a nine-year-old girl who was thrown in with a flock of sheep for $100.

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Last Updated:
June 19, 2020

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