Historical Profile: Mary Mahoney

Born to freed slaves in 1845, Mary Mahoney knew from a young age she wanted to be a nurse. She saw first hand how badly they were needed in the community prior to the Civil War, but when war broke out black women were barred from volunteering and training in the medical field. Still, she took a job at a hospital, working as a cook and char woman (cleaner), and was always willing to lend an extra hand where it was needed. Finally, in 1878, she and her younger sister joined 38 other students in a training program for nurses at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, where Mary had been working for fifteen years.

The program was extremely competitive, with only three graduates. Two white women, and Mary Mahoney, making her the first Black woman with such a degree.

The daughter of freed slaves, Mary was born and raised in Dorchester, MA, attending the first integrated school in Boston. While opportunities were expanding for women and blacks in general, Mary was still hobbled by racism, of both the face-to-face and institutionalized sort.

Even though she’d graduated the nursing program, and been working at the hospital for a decade and a half, Mary was barred from working in a hospital due to her race. Her credentials weren’t enough to counteract racist laws, institutional policies, or convince patients that black women were anything but “stupid,” “ill-educated,” “dirty,” “lazy,” or “promiscuous,” all of which were deeply held beliefs by white society, even after the Civil War, and even in the North. As more freedmen and women moved north during reconstruction and the late 1800s, racism in the North increased–helping the slaves had been all well and good, provided they stayed in the South. Though the Great Migration wouldn’t officially start until 1916 as factories producing war goods for Europe sought more and more manpower, Blacks were moving North almost as soon as the treaty at Appomattox was signed.

Following graduation, Mary took to private nursing, working mostly with new mothers and babies and acting as a midwife in upper class white homes in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

To avoid being seen as part of the “help,” Mary ate meals alone when staying with patients, and held herself apart from family and staff. Over time, she developed quite the professional reputation, which opened doors for other Black nurses and nursing candidates. She even began traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard for her patients, even visiting southern states.

In the 1890s, Mary was barred from joining a professional organization for nurses due to her race. Undeterred, she cofounded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) with Martha Franklin and Adah Thorns in 1908. The organization did not discriminate, and strove to put nurses of color on equal footing with white nurses in terms of training, pay, and employment opportunities. At the time, many state laws even prevented Black nurses from working in white homes.

In 1911, now in her 60s, Mary chose a more settled position, taking charge of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in New York to finish out her career. She only stayed a year, however, before retiring. She used her “free time” to lobby for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and was one of the first women to register to vote in Boston.

In 1923 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and passed away in 1926 at the age of 80.

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