February is Black History Month, ideal for celebrating the many noteworthy Black people in the medical field, particularly nurses – our favorite at VNA! Black nurses play a special role in American medical history, spearheading initiatives to create a more equitable healthcare system that meets the needs of all Americans, regardless of one’s racial background. From Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), who’s better known for helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad than her exemplary nursing skills, to Betty Smith Williams (1929 – ), who co-founded the National Black Nurses Association in 1971 and was the first Black person to teach at the university level in California – and millions in between – history is replete with Black Black nurses who are pioneers and trail blazers in the field. Below are just a few of them:
Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore around 1822 (the precise year is not known), Harriet Tubman is famous for not only escaping slavery herself, but for clandestinely returning to the South several times to help over 50 slaves (and possibly many more; exact numbers are disputed) also safely reach freedom in the North. Lesser known is her significant work as a nurse, both before the Civil War when she helped injured escaped slaves, and during the Civil War when she aided injured Union Army soldiers, deftly utilizing herbs for their medicinal properties. And while she had no official degree, her natural acumen for healing techniques was highly lauded.
One of Betty Smith Williams’, DrPH, RN, FAAN, most groundbreaking achievements was co-founding the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) in 1971 of which she has served as president. NBNA’s mission is to provide a forum for collective action by African American nurses to represent and provide a forum for black nurses to advocate for and implement strategies to ensure access to the highest quality of healthcare for persons of color.
Born in 1901, Estelle Massey Osborne became the first Black woman to earn a master’s degree in nursing. In 1943, Osborne became a consultant for the National Nursing Council for War Services helping get the color ban lifted from nursing in the US Army and Navy. She worked tirelessly to create opportunities for Black nurses including post-nursing school programs for nurses of color.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown studied at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing where she graduated in 1950, and later received her baccalaureate degree from Villanova University. She then joined the army, working in Japan and later Korea during her service. In the 1960s, she also trained Vietnam-bound surgical nurses. She became the first Black woman to be promoted to brigadier general and the first to head the 7,000-strong US Army Nurse Corps. In addition to her Harlem diploma, Johnson-Brown achieved a nursing bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and an educational administration PhD. She was awarded a number of distinguished military decorations as well as being named Army Nurse of the Year twice.
Adah Belle Samuel Thoms was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1870. In 1905, she graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, where the following year she became acting director for nearly two decades. She was instrumental in setting up the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and strove for the acceptance of black nurses into the American Red Cross. She also fought for equal opportunities for nurses in the US Army Nurse Corps.
To learn more about the many other Black leaders in the nursing field who should be honored for their work and accomplishments, click here.