Black History Month: Honoring Heroes in Nursing

February 11, 2021

By Maria Calloway, CNO
Providence Health

There are many African American nurses with great contributions to the Nursing Profession in the United States. I’d like to take a moment to focus on a few of these great American heroes whose contributions opened doors for so many of us to be part of the nursing profession.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery in 1797. She is most commonly known for her work as an abolitionist, advocate and speaker for women’s rights, and the first black woman to win a court case vying for the returned ownership (freedom) of her son. She also spent years serving as a nurse. She is most praised for her speech given in 1851, entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?,” in which she demanded equal rights for all women as well as all African Americans. 

Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

The American Abolitionist, is famously known from her work helping slaves travel the Underground Railroad to seek freedom. While she never received formal training, she used her knowledge of herbal medicine to treat injured soldiers during the Civil War.  As a Civil War nurse, Ms. Tubman was essential to the troops who were infected with dysentery and smallpox, using natural and herbal remedies for treatment and healing.

Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)

Born into slavery in the Deep South, she served the Union Army in various capacities: officially as a "laundress" but in reality a nurse, caretaker, educator, and friend to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (later the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment). In 1902, she published these experiences in “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp, a Civil War Memoir” told from the singular perspective of an African American woman.

Here is an excerpt from “Reminiscences” by Susie King Taylor, p. 21

Perhaps Taylor's most important service to the 1st South Carolina Volunteers was her role as an educator. In between dressing wounds and cleaning uniforms, Taylor taught reading and writing to the men of the regiment.

"I taught a great many of the comrades in Company E to read and write, when they were off duty. Nearly all were anxious to learn... I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my services."

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza is known for becoming the first licensed African American nurse. In 1878, at 33 years of age and 10 years after beginning her employment with The New England Hospital for Women and Children, Mary Eliza was admitted to one of the first integrated nursing schools in the United States. She joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later would become the American Nurses Association (ANA), but found the institution to be uninviting toward the black nurses. In 1908, Mary Eliza co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) and was a lifetime member. Prior to her death, Mary Eliza championed women's rights and was among the first women to register to vote in Boston in 1920. To this day, the ANA (who incorporated the NACGN in 1949) honor the Mary Mahoney award to those nurses who exemplify integration in their field.

Mabel Keaton Staupers(1890-1989)

Mabel Keaton Staupers, R.N., was instrumental in ending the United States Army's policy of excluding African American nurses from its ranks in World War II. In 1948 Staupers also successfully lobbied for full integration of the American Nurses Association.

A leader of vision, determination, and courage, Mabel Keaton Staupers helped break down color barriers in nursing at a time when segregation was entrenched in this country. Dedicated to improving the status of black nurses and promoting better health care for black Americans, she was instrumental in organizing the first private facility in Harlem, New York, where black physicians could treat their patients.


Black History Month - Notable Nurses Throughout History (2020);

Nursing Theory(2020);


Library of Congress(n.d), Susie King Taylor

Taylor, Susie King. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. Boston: Susie King Taylor, 1902. Available online at: