Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first Black woman to become a licensed nurse in the United States, according to the National Women’s History Museum. After working as a janitor, cook, washwoman, and nurse’s aide at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Mahoney was admitted into their nursing program. She became one of only four students out of a class of 42 to complete the program in 1879 making history as the only African American to do so.
Born May 7, 1845 (other sources say April 16) — in Boston, MA — Mahoney was the daughter of freed slaves who moved from North Carolina to Boston to distance themselves from the heavily racist south. As a child Mahoney attended the Philips School in Boston, one of the first integrated schools in the country.
After fifteen years of working several roles at the New England Hospital, Mahoney entered the nursing graduate program at the age of 33. Mahoney completed the rigorous 16-month program sealing her place in history as the first African American licensed nurse.
Instead of following the path of public nursing like many of her colleagues, Mahoney decided to bypass the negative discriminatory encounters that came along with public nursing and instead she devoted her career to the private nursing sector.
In 1896, she joined the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, but faced racial discrimination as the association’s members were unwelcoming of Black nurses. The discrimination led Mahoney to establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. She served as a lifetime member and chaplain to the organization. During her nursing career, Mahoney also served as director of the Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black children from 1911 to 1912.
After 40 years of service as a nurse, Mahoney retired, but continued to lead the charge against discrimination and pointed her efforts toward women’s rights. She is said to be one of the first women to register to vote in Boston after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Mary Mahoney died after a three-year fight with breast cancer on Jan. 4, 1926 at the age of 80. She has since been honored and recognized by the American Nurses Association with her induction into the Hall of Fame in 1976. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. The Mary Mahoney Award, founded by the NACGN in 1936 is still awarded to nurses by the ANA. Today a monument stands at the gravesite of Mary Mahoney in Everett, MA to honor her legacy in nursing and civil rights.