Honoring African American Contributions in Medicine: Nurses

This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. Sophia is starting the MLIS program at the  University of Pittsburgh Online, Fall 2020. This is the second in a series looking at African Americans in the business and sciences.

Susie King Taylor. Photograph taken between 1862 and 1866.

As with the practice of midwifery within the African American community, the practice of nursing also has a deep and rich history. In 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney graduated from the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s professional graduate school for nursing. Upon receiving and obtaining her professional nursing license, she became the first professionally trained African American nurse. This post will explore the history of African American nurses from the Civil War to World War II via photographs.

Susie King Taylor, First Recognized African American Army Nurse

Although born into slavery in Georgia in 1848, Taylor and her brother were taught to read and write in secret. To keep their lessons confidential, they wrapped their books in paper “to prevent the police or white persons from seeing them.” Taylor’s literacy allowed her to document her experiences serving with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War in her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp. Taylor took on a variety of roles, including acting as the regiment’s official laundress, as well as taking on additional positions as cook, teacher, and nurse.

Taylor concludes her memoir by writing, “…My people are striving to attain the full standard of all other races born free in the sight of God, and in a number of instances have succeeded. Justice we ask—to be citizens of these United States, where so many of our people have shed their blood with their white comrades, that the stars and stripes should never be polluted.”

Serving Communities After Natural Disasters

In addition to serving during wartime, African American nurses assisted communities suffering from disasters. In the April 24, 1920 issue of The Semi-Weekly Leader, the newspaper reported that a tornado swept through Mississippi with awful effect. In response to the tornado, the canteen unit pictured below supported the American Red Cross’ endeavors in Meridian.

Yet another natural disaster struck two years later, this time in the form of a fire in New Bern, North Carolina. Once more, African American nurses affiliated with the American Red Cross came to serve. According to the December 07, 1922 issue of The Rockingham Post-Dispatch, the African American community suffered disproportionately from a fire that lasted for approximately 9 hours. The newspaper reported that “fully 3000 people are homeless, most of whom are negroes.”

New Bern, N.C. Colored nurses issuing food after fire, 1922.

Negro Red Cross Canteen, Meridian, Mississippi. This canteen unit, with the aid of the men in group, voluntarily undertook the establishment of a center for the wounded of their race in the storm of April 21, 1920.

World War II African American Nurses

At the onset of World War II, African American women were denied the right to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. However, in 1941, after facing pressure from black civil rights organizations and the black press, the Army Nurse Corps allowed the admission of 56 black nurses. In the July 8, 1944, issue of The Jackson Advocate, a reporter wrote about the opening of the first basic training center for African American nurses at Fort Huachuca.

First Negro Nurses Land in England.

While the majority of African American nurses attended to German Prisoners of War in the United States, a few served overseas in various theaters, including England, Africa, and Australia. In the September 8, 1944 issue of The Dayton Forum, the reporter wrote that 63 nurses comprising the first group of Army Nurse Corps arrived in England to begin active nursing duty.

From the Civil War to World War II to the present day, African American nurses have devoted their lives to serving their communities. The most recent data and statistics compiled by the Office of Minority Health recorded that there are about 279,600 black RNs and 162,800 LPNs serving in the United States. For these African American nurses, Susie King Taylor, Mary Eliza Mahoney, and the African American nurses serving in times of national disasters, as well as wars, helped pave the way for them.

Learn more

A portion of artist Meg Saligman’s sweeping 2010 “Evolving Face of Nursing” From the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, 2019.


Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

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