School of Nursing

February 3, 2020

Black History Month

As we begin the first week of Black History Month, this is a time to reflect on the particular challenges and struggles of Black nursing professionals. 

It is not easy for anyone to become a nurse. For far too long, it was particularly difficult for African Americans to have access to the education, collegial support, and acceptance they needed to become nurses and be offered jobs as health care professionals. Societal prejudices were amplified in professional settings, with many (far too many) holding the prejudice that they were not capable of being medical professionals. This resulted in them being systematically excluded from schools of nursing, including ours. 

It is testimony to the strength of culture and character that so many African Americans did persevere and become nurses, physicians, and other health care professionals. Harriet Tubman is most often remembered as an abolitionist who was instrumental in helping slaves access the Underground Railroad that took many of them to freedom. What’s not as well known is that Tubman was a Civil War nurse who saved countless lives. She was also an intelligence resource for the Union army. It’s hard to even fathom the steeliness of character and determination it took to play those roles at that. She was eventually buried with military honors and will forever be known as a credit to our profession. 

While Tubman was a nurse, she was not licensed. That trail was blazed by Mary Eliza Mahoney, who was one of the first enrollees in an integrated nursing program in the U.S. The year was 1878, and it was after Mahoney had been employed for more than a decade as a nurse. Of the 42 students in her cohort, only Mahoney and three others graduated; she was the only African American. She went on to be a powerful civil rights advocate and one of the first women to register to vote in Boston after ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920. 

Much has been accomplished, yet much remains to be done. Barriers to success remain for African Americans and all people of color as well as those from underserved populations. They are still underrepresented in nursing schools and thus in the nursing profession, and they are still very underrepresented in supervisory and management positions. 

We all owe a debt of gratitude to those who—often at great personal cost—helped create a profession and here at our School of Nursing where everyone is welcome and appreciated. At the same time, we can best acknowledge that debt by reaffirming our commitment to understanding and addressing any and all barriers to success for those historically discriminated against.