School of Nursing

February 10, 2023

Honor Black History with me – today and every day

This is Black History Month. It honors a part of U.S. history that is four hundred years strong.

The history of Black people in what is now the United States of America predates the nation itself. It is a history fraught with undeniable inequity and cruelty. Yet, it is also a history to be marveled at and respected as it shows us the strength, the perseverance, and the contributions to not only our healthcare system, but to who we are as a country.

Countless Black and African American innovators, advocates, and experts have contributed to your wellness. You likely have not heard most of their names, because many toiled in anonymity or obscurity. Many went to extraordinary lengths to become nurses and physicians in spite of a system that denied their intellect, their intent, and their humanity.

James Baldwin once said, “History is not something you read about in a book. History is not even the past – it’s the present, because everybody operates, whether or not we know it, out of assumptions which are produced only, and only by, our history.” The history of our Black and African American colleagues is also present with us – and not only in the month of February, but each day.

There is a reasonable chance you have heard of Harriet Tubman, because she was a prominent abolitionist and a key figure in the Underground Railway that saved countless Black lives. She is often mentioned in history books. What you probably haven’t heard is that Harriet Tubman was a Civil War nurse. Many people, Black and white, survived because of her efforts.

The first Black licensed nurse was Mary Mahoney. Though she had been a nurse for more than a decade, it wasn’t until 13 years after the Civil War ended that Mahoney was allowed to enroll in an integrated nursing program. In 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Mahoney 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.

Alexa Irene Canady, MD was the first Black neurosurgeon, a landmark not achieved until 1981. It is hard to put in correct perspective the barriers Canady had to surmount as a Black woman in a strongly male, strongly white subset of the medical profession. “I was worried that because I was a Black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited,” she once said. Her skill and compassion could not be denied, and she eventually became chief of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Perseverance is a hallmark of the many Black healthcare groundbreakers, typified by James McCune Smith. Despite being born into slavery, Smith was determined to be a doctor. Denied entry to multiple medical schools simply because he was Black, Smith persisted, eventually attending the University of Glasgow in Scotland. By the time he was 24, he was Dr. McCune.

Perhaps you or someone you know has had open heart surgery. We owe the credit for this technique to a Black surgeon, Daniel Williams. He was the first to perform successful open-heart surgery on a human.

Alzheimer’s disease is named for the German psychiatrist who first described it. That discovery became knowledge in the American medical community because a Black man—Solomon Carter Fuller—translated Alzheimer’s work into English.

The list is lengthy and inspirational, because despite racism, relentless indignities, and limited opportunities, Black nurses and doctors pursued their professions so they could help and heal others.

For far too long, nursing and medicine as professions turned their backs on Black people – and indeed perpetuated some of our history’s gravest racist harms. By designating this as Black History Month, we honor and respect their dignity, their commitment, and their accomplishments. We acknowledge the role of health education institutions such as ours in their historic exclusion and erasure and we further emphasize our responsibility in repairing this harm. We celebrate not only the past, but the future.

I invite you to take time this month to learn more about the brilliant Black and African American minds of healthcare. In our annual Perspectives from Black Nurses, we hear advice from our faculty and alumni, and all this month on our social media channels, you will see us acknowledge and encourage learning about the legacies of nurses who have contributed to our nation’s healthcare system in historic ways, but whose names are still unknown to most.

We also acknowledge the legacy of Lois Price Spratlan, whose endowment continues to fund scholars to this day.

Please join me in learning more about Black History Month at our annually curated page: Black History Month | School of Nursing.

In honor of Black history, today and every day.