Mary Eliza Mahoney. Her very name is synonymous with the advancement of minorities in nursing. As America’s first professionally trained black nurse, Mahoney (1845-1926) has been an inspiration for generations of nurses. So it’s no surprise that the profession’s most prestigious award for nurses who have made significant contributions to opening doors of opportunity for nurses of color is named in her honor.
“Every nurse knows [about] Mary Mahoney,” says Harriet Brathwaite, AAS, MSN, RN, the 2004 recipient of the Mary Mahoney Award, which is conferred by the American Nurses Association (ANA). “I first had heard about her before I ever became a nurse. She is one of those icons in nursing.
“The fact that Mary Mahoney persevered and graduated from a school of nursing at a time when most of these institutions did not accept blacks is significant,” Brathwaite adds. “She was a pioneer. She encountered many obstacles and it took her more than [the usual amount of time] to graduate. She was also very instrumental during her career in bringing together minority nurses–they weren’t called ‘minority’ in those days, people called them ‘colored’ nurses then–and in helping other people [of color] to get involved in nursing. That is why it was very significant for me to get this award.”
The Mary Mahoney Award, which is given every two years, recognizes individual nurses or groups of nurses who have made outstanding contributions to opening and advancing opportunities in nursing to members of minority groups. Nominees for the award must also have made a significant contribution to nursing in general, and their achievements in promoting the integration, retention and advancement of minorities in nursing must be current and demonstrated.
The award comes with a gold medallion, decorated with a diamond. “I can tell you that since the day I got it I have not taken it off,” Brathwaite says.
A Nursing Legend
Born in Massachusetts in 1845, Mary Eliza Mahoney was a hospital worker for many years before she began her career as a nurse. She worked at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Mass., in a number of capacities, including maid, washerwoman and cook
Eventually she was allowed to work as a nurse’s assistant at the hospital, which was the first institution in the U.S. to offer nursing training. In 1878 Mahoney became the first black student to be enrolled in the hospital’s Training School for Nurses and began her professional education. She received her diploma in 1879.
Because professionally trained nurses were a new phenomenon in those days, the educational standards were extremely rigorous. The Training School’s course covered 16 months. The student nurses first received 12 months of medical, surgical and maternal nursing training, then they completed an additional four months of private nursing in homes in the community. They worked 16-hour days, six days a week.
Despite the difficulty of the program, Mahoney proved that she had what it takes to succeed in nursing. She was one of only three or four students–out of a class of approximately 40–to complete the program. The other students were all white.
After graduating, Mahoney worked as a private care nurse in New England for 30 years. She also served as supervisor of the Howard Orphan Asylum for Black Children in Kings Park, Long Island. But her contributions to the profession did not stop there.
In 1896 Mahoney became a member of the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada (a professional association which later evolved into the ANA). This was a significant achievement, because the organization was predominately white and rarely admitted African American nurses. Realizing that black nurses needed a professional organization of their own, Mahoney co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) in 1908. The association’s goals included advocating for more formal training opportunities for minority nurses and working to bring about racial integration in the nursing profession.
A longtime advocate of women’s suffrage, Mahoney is also believed to be one of the first women to register and vote in Boston following passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. After a three-year battle with breast cancer, Mary Eliza Mahoney died in 1926.
It was NACGN that originally established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936, “to recognize her outstanding example to nurses of all races.” When NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the award continued to be presented through ANA.
Continuing the Legacy
Considering that their own distinguished careers have followed the trail Mary Mahoney blazed, it is not surprising that many recipients of the award over the years have worked hard to keep her legacy alive.
When the 1968 recipient, Helen Sullivan Miller, traveled to Everett, Mass., to visit Mahoney’s grave, she could not easily find the marker. So Miller, a prominent nurse educator who later wrote the biography Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926: America’s First Black Professional Nurse–A Historical Perspective (Wright Publishing Co., 1997), led a drive to have a monument built to honor the nursing legend. With the support of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and ANA, the monument was dedicated in 1973.
Another Mary Mahoney Award winner, the 1961 honoree Mabel Keaton Staupers (1890-1989), designed the stone. Like Mahoney, Staupers was a pioneering African American nursing leader who worked tirelessly to advance racial equality in the profession. As the first paid executive secretary of the NACGN, Staupers is credited with increasing membership, building coalitions with other nursing and non-nursing organizations and tearing down the racial barriers that previously kept black nurses out of the military. She also played a key role in organizing the first private health care facility in Harlem where black physicians could treat their patients.
When the ANA established its nursing Hall of Fame in 1976, Mary Mahoney was included in the first group of honorees to be inducted into its ranks. Mabel Keaton Staupers earned that honor posthumously as well, in 1996.
Over the past 70 years since the recognition was first bestowed, several generations of nursing leaders have been honored with the Mary Mahoney Award for their exceptional achievements in championing equal opportunities in nursing for members of minority groups. Here’s a look at some of the most recent recipients of the award and the impact they have made on the profession.
Harriet L. Brathwaite (2004)
Harriet Brathwaite is a pioneer in the field of mental health nursing. Over the course of her nursing career, which began in 1959, she served as a mental health consultant for several organizations, including the New York State Department of Health. In 1976 she joined Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens as a mental health team leader and just a few months later she was appointed chief of services. Brathwaite was one of the first nurses–and the first minority nurse–appointed to this position, which she held until her retirement in 1987. She was also an assistant professor of nursing at Long Island University from 1987 to 1992.
In all, Brathwaite has served on the faculties of five different academic institutions, encompassing both nursing and medical schools. She found this an ideal vantage point from which to promote the recruitment of minority students. “One of the things I tried to do was be on the Admissions Committee,” she says. “I wanted to make sure everyone had a fair chance to make it.”
If schools had 100 enrollment slots to fill, they would consider 200 qualified applicants, Brathwaite explains. As the only person of color on the admissions committees where she served at the time, she took it upon herself to advocate for minority students. “Not just blacks, but Hispanics and people of other cultures, so there would be a more diversified mix of people in the class,” she says.
Brathwaite was also instrumental in setting up mentoring programs for minority students at several schools of nursing, including Long Island University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “We started with that school because at the time there were very few minority students and faculty,” she recalls. “The rates of [minority] students graduating and passing the NCLEX-RN® exam were very low.” In the first year of the program, out of a group of 10 minority students who were mentored, eight graduated and passed the NCLEX on their first attempt.
Jean Rochelle Marshall (2002)
Throughout her 30-year career in health care planning and administration, Jean Rochelle Marshall, MSN, RN, FAAN, has worked to end minority health disparities and increase educational and leadership opportunities for nurses of color. Her accomplishments include successfully securing funding, development and management of innovative, nationally acclaimed programs designed to meet the needs of a broad range of populations, with special emphasis on the medically underserved.
Since 1997, Marshall has worked for Meridian Health System in Wall, N.J., as the vice president of government and community relations. She administers a budget of over $2.5 million and directs a staff of 33. She has spearheaded a major effort to bolster the ranks of minorities in nursing by awarding over $75,000 in nursing scholarships to enable promising students of color to complete school. As of 2002, the program had helped provided assistance to over 50 students.
She also initiated an award-winning grassroots effort to improve the health of minorities by organizing Partners in Health, composed of over 400 representatives from 14 African American fraternities, sororities and professional groups. The program, in which the partners collaborate with Meridian Health System, has focused statewide attention on disparities in care related to infant mortality, pediatric asthma, cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS and diabetes.
During her tenure as the first African American president of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, Marshall implemented programs that significantly increased black membership in the association. In addition, she collaborated with New Jersey schools of nursing to address issues that might prevent black students from staying in school.
“I certainly think it is important to be active and assume leadership roles within an organization,” Marshall says. She also believes nurses of color should serve as mentors for the next generation. “You need to look behind and see who is following you,” she emphasizes. “You must work really hard to remove barriers for them and help them create a path for their own careers like others have done for you.”
Catherine Alicia Georges (1998)
Catherine Alicia Georges, EdD, RN, FAAN, has been a nurse educator for 30 years; prior to that, she worked as a visiting nurse for a decade. She is currently the chairperson of the Department of Nursing at Lehman College in Bronx, N.Y., where she has played a key role in the recruitment and retention of minority students.
Georges has held many national leadership positions, including president of the National Black Nurses Association (1987-91). In that capacity, she worked with the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Bureau of Health Professions, Division of Nursing to reexamine providing federal assistance to universities and colleges submitting grants that would open access to nursing education for minorities. More recently, as president of the National Black Nurses Foundation (NBNF), Georges obtained funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation that resulted in the development of the NBNF Health Authority Model, which provides a health care delivery model for medically underserved minority populations.
A member of the New York State Nurses Association, Georges also has been very active in local, state and national health policy-making. She has served on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Council on Nursing Education and Practice and on the New York State Governor’s Health Care Advisory Board.
She believes membership in professional organizations is critical for the advancement of minority nurses. “You have to be out there in the community to be seen, so that others listen to and hear what you have to say,” she says. “[As a person of color,] you can bring a different voice to the debate.”
Although much progress has been made since Mary Mahoney’s time, nursing is still a predominately white, female profession. Georges feels that current efforts to attract more minorities and men to the field need to try harder. “Maybe we have seen some change in the numbers over the years, but we don’t advocate the profession,” she contends. “We have to get [minority] students interested in the sciences earlier. We can’t just explain what nursing is. We have to actively encourage them to become nurses.”
She advises minority nurses to provide that encouragement by talking to church groups, middle and elementary school students about nursing careers. And current minority student nurses need to be out in the community spreading the message as well, she adds. “Young students need to see success stories,” Georges explains. “We need to have younger role models because [kids] can relate to them better. If they see a 19-year- old [nursing student] and they are 11 years old, they may think, ‘I can get there.’”
Bernice Finley Morton and Barbara L. Nichols (1996)
The Mary Mahoney Award isn’t always given to just one nurse at a time. Bernice Finley Morton, PhD, MSN, RN, of Detroit and Barbara L. Nichols, DHL, MS, RN, FAAN, of Madison, Wisc., were co-recipients of the award in 1996.
Morton was a professional nurse and educator for 57 years before retiring in 1988. She is an associate professor emerita at Wayne State University College of Nursing in Detroit, where she is best known for developing the college’s first affirmative action plan for minority students. The plan, which greatly improved the recruitment and retention of minority students as well as minority faculty at Wayne State, has served as a successful model for other nursing schools.
Affirmative action has often been a controversial concept, and Morton recalls that the terminology initially made some of her colleagues uncomfortable. They balked at the idea of having an affirmative action officer, but when she changed the job title to “minority affairs officer” the position was better accepted. She was then able to reach out to major hospitals and schools of nursing to discuss mutual concerns regarding the recruitment and retention of minority students. “It went over quite well once people quieted down about [it being] ‘affirmative action’ and accepted the fact that the numbers were skewed towards a prominently white student body,” she says.
Morton is also the author of The Color of Healing: A History of the Achievements of Black Nurses (On the Road Publishing, Detroit, 2005). The book shares the oral histories of 21 black nurses from 1915-2000 whose lives have significantly impacted those of the people and communities around them.
Morton says much of her career has been devoted to personally encouraging minority nurses to attend professional meetings, join associations or run for office. “I have always pulled, dragged and begged students to get involved in professional organizations,” she asserts. “This is absolutely essential for a young nurse’s career. [Minority nurses] must be represented. We can’t be invisible.”
Barbara Nichols, like many other Mary Mahoney Award winners, has a resume that’s full of “firsts.” She was the first African American nurse to serve as president of the ANA, to be appointed to a cabinet position in the Wisconsin state government and to be awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin. As the associate director of nursing for the Wisconsin Area Health Education Center System, she developed a national model for recruiting and retaining minority health care providers, focusing on nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives for medically underserved areas.
A nursing leader, author and consultant, Nichols has been internationally recognized for her work as a member of the board of directors of the International Council of Nurses, as well as her assistance to nurses in Zimbabwe and Botswana as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s international nursing program. She is currently the chief executive officer of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools.
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