Hot on the heels of Black History Month and our highlight of the incredible Mary Seacole and Betsi Cadawaladr, we bring you the story of Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American graduate (registered) nurse. Her motto was “Work more and better the coming year than the previous year.” While that quote may not ring true to current nurses (is it possible to work more than you did in 2020? probably not), her trailblazing epitomizes the Women’s History Month theme of Choose to Challenge.
Mary Eliza was born on May 7th, 1845 to two former enslaved persons who had fled North Carolina for the Dorchester neighborhood of South Boston,* in order to build a family in the pre-Civil War North. Boston was a hub of the growing abolition movement, and Massachusetts was one of the most progressive states at the time, moving to desegregate schools in 1855, when Mary Eliza was ten years old. Though Mary Eliza attended an integrated school, her experience of late 19th-century Boston was far from utopian. Even in the abolitionist North, racism abounded (and abounds). Black Bostonians were especially restricted by employment practices that limited their options to traditionally blue-collar jobs with lower wages.
But Mary Eliza refused the options before her. After becoming interested in nursing as a teenager, Mary Eliza was determined to work in patient care. At age 20, she began working for the New England Hospital for Women and Children as a nurse’s aide–– and a janitor, cook, and washerwoman. She may have been one of the first nurses with a side-gig or three, but she was certainly not the last!
Mary was ultimately able to ditch the side-gigs thanks to the innovative approach of her hospital employer, Located in the Roxbury suburb of Boston, the hospital chose to challenge established norms of the era by educating women in medicine, training female nurses, and hiring competent female physicians. Essentially, it was the first nursing school in the United States.
A female physician at the New England Hospital noticed Mary Eliza’s talent and work ethic, and advocated for acceptance into the hospital’s nursing school. The program was the first of its kind, and Mary Eliza was the first Black student to be accepted. In fact, she was the first African-American nursing student in the United States, period. Her training at the women’s hospital consisted of grueling 16 hour days, 7 days a week. Of the 42 students enrolled at the beginning of the 16 month program, only four graduated. Of course, Mary Eliza Mahoney was one of those four.
After her graduation in 1879, Mary Eliza worked as a private-duty nurse for many years. Private-duty nursing was rarely comfortable–– patients and clients expected 24 hour care. Nurses were expected to be quiet and invisible, and when seen and heard, were expected to be cheerful and subservient to the wishes of their employers. Due to Boston’s racist, discriminatory hiring practices, this was the only type of nursing employment available to Mary Eliza.
Her reputation for empathy and professionalism gained her clients among many of the most prestigious families in Boston at the time, which allowed her to increase her daily rate from $1.50 ($40 today) in 1879 to $2.50 ($66 today) in 1892. Reviews left of her from the time include “no faults noticed,” and “good temper, discretion, and loyalty which were well-tested in the case of a weak, nervous, self-indulgent invalid.” If only all patients were that self-aware!
Not content with simply blazing a trail for Black women in nursing, Mary Eliza dedicated the last decades of her life to creating support systems for the women following her footsteps. She helped found the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which was the only alternative to the American Nurses’ Association (ANA), a predominantly white organization with little desire to promote inclusion. The organization grew under her leadership, eventually voting to be integrated into the ANA in 1949. She was also a vocal advocate for women’s suffrage, and was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston following the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Mary Eliza lived until the age of 81, having survived systemic oppression (both racist and misogynistic), the Civil War, and the First World War. She battled breast cancer for 3 years before finally taking her well-deserved eternal rest in 1926. Her headstone in Everett, Massachusetts recognizes her profound life achievements with the epitaph “The First Professional Negro Nurse in the U.S.A.”
*Fun fact: My grandfather grew up in the same neighborhood of Boston as Mary Eliza!