250 Years of Black Nursing History
The inspiring stories of nurses whose “firsts” changed the nation
Despite centuries of slavery, segregation, systemic inequality, and prejudice — including being denied entry into nursing schools and organizations — Black nurses have made great contributions to our profession. In this article, we’re spotlighting some of the efforts of courageous and determined Black nursing pioneers.
One of the earliest Black luminaries in American healthcare was James Derham (or Durnham) (1762?–1802?). Born a slave in Philadelphia, Derham was purchased by a doctor who encouraged him to study medicine, in an era when it was actually illegal in many states for Black people to learn to read or write.
Derham is believed to have earned enough money working as a nurse to purchase his manumission when he was 21. In the 1780s, he traveled to New Orleans, where he became a nurse for a Scottish physician.
He later became the first Black man in the U.S. to practice medicine, once earning a handsome income of $3,000 a year. However, he vanished and is presumed to have died in 1802 after a new local law banned the practice of medicine by anyone without a formal medical degree — something Black Americans in those days had no chance of obtaining.
A number of Black women born in slavery became nurses during the Civil War. Sojourner Truth (1797–1883), who later remembered having been sold with a herd of sheep for $100, and Harriet Tubman (1822–1913), who once had a $40,000 price on her head for “stealing slaves,” both cared for soldiers during the war. Whether treating wounds or dysentery, they helped to bring comfort and order to places of horror — the only way to describe Civil War battlefields and hospitals.
Susie Baker King Taylor (1848–1912), born in Georgia, was liberated by Union troops in 1862 and became a regimental laundress with the newly organized 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Colored). Washing and ironing were only a small part of her unpaid work, which also included nursing sick or wounded soldiers using traditional folk remedies like sassafras tea.
After the war, Taylor became president of the Woman’s Relief Corps, a veterans’ association that assisted soldiers and hospitals in civilian life.
In 1902, she wrote a memoir chronicling her wartime experiences, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers. “It seems strange how our aversion to seeing suffering is overcome in war,” she wrote, “how we are able to see the most sickening sights … with feelings only of sympathy and pity.”
The end of the Civil War brought an end to the practice of slavery, but not to discrimination. By the 1880s, “Jim Crow” laws had made many activities, areas, and organizations effectively — or explicitly — off-limits to Black people. There were also sharp limits on where Black Americans could study or practice nursing and whom they were allowed to treat.
The first Black woman to work as a professionally trained nurse in the United States was Mary Elizabeth Mahoney (1845–1926), who graduated from the nursing program of the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1905. Because the hospital’s policy at the time was that only one Black and one Jewish nurse could enroll per class, Mahoney was not able to receive her diploma until after she had worked as a private duty nurse in the hospital for 20 years! [Editor’s note: You can read more about Mahoney in our “Profiles in Nursing” column.]