Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first black professional nurse in the U.S. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which worked to eliminate racial discrimination within the registered nursing profession.
Mahoney was born in 1845 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were freed slaves, who had moved north from Carolina before the Civil War in the hope that it would lessen the racial discrimination they would be subjected to. Mahoney attended the Phillips School, which was one of the first integrated schools in Boston. At 18, Mahoney decided to pursue a career in nursing and found a nursing position at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children.
In 1878, at the age of 33, Mahoney was accepted into the hospital’s nursing school. It was the first professional nursing program in the country, and out of 42 students, Mahoney was one of the only four to graduate. During her training, Mahoney was instructed by doctors in the hospital’s medical, surgical and maternity wards and attended lectures before working for four months as a private-duty nurse. Mahoney became the first black woman to complete nurse’s training in the U.S. After graduating she registered to work as a private care nurse. She built up a reputation for being a calm and efficient nurse. Mahoney’s professionalism led her to raise the status and standards of nursing, especially that of African-American nurses. As her reputation spread, she began to receive requests from patients as far as New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina.
Mahoney was determined to change the way patients and families thought of African American nurses and in 1908 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) as a response to the predominantly white Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (NAAUSC) reluctance to admit African-American nurses into their association – although Mahoney was one of their first black members. The NACGN was created to support and reward the accomplishments of all outstanding nurses, regardless of their race and was committed to eliminating racial discrimination in the nursing community. In 1909, Mahoney spoke at the NACGN’s first annual convention, detailing the inequalities she faced in her nursing education and in nursing education at the time. She also called for a demonstration at the New England Hospital to campaign for the admittance of more African American students. NACGN members responded by giving Mahoney a lifetime membership in the association and a position as the organisation’s chaplain. Mahoney helped to recruit nurses to the organisation for over a decade.
From 1911 to 1912, Mahoney served as director of the Howard Orphan Asylum for black children in Kings Park, Long Island. It was the last position Mahoney would hold in her career. In her retirement, Mahoney continued her fight for equality and became involved with the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1920, following the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, Mahoney was one of the first women in Boston to register to vote. Mahoney died six years later, at the age of 80. Mahoney’s influence in nursing was clear, as four years after her death, the number of African American women in nursing had more than doubled and continues to grow. Her grave in Everett, Massachusetts is now the site of national pilgrimages.
In 1936, the NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award. In 1951, the organisation merged with the American Nurses Association and continued to bestow the award biennially in recognition of significant contributions in advancing equal opportunities in nursing. In 1976, Mahoney was inducted into the ANA’s Hall of Fame and in 1993 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The Mary Eliza Mahoney dialysis centre is now part of the Boston Women’s Heritage walking trail.