April 13, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 35

Nation’s first black nurse from Roxbury

Howard Manly

Even back then, health was an issue.

John D. Philbrick, the superintendent of Boston Public schools, gave a speech students in 1862 that stressed the importance of “bodily health.”

“Not only every intelligent educator,” Philbrick orated, “but every man of common sense, will assent at once, without argument, to the proposition that a healthy, well-developed physical organization is the basis of usefulness and enjoyment…(but) under the present conditions of city life at home and at school, a child stands a poor chance to enter upon a career of life having a good physical system, a body healthy, strong, well-formed and of good size.”

Mary Eliza Mahoney was 17 years old when she heard Philbrick’s speech. She weighed less than 100 pounds, and while she didn’t appear to take the superintendent’s comments personally, she did set out to do something about the healthiness of others.

Seventeen years later, Mahoney became the first African-American to become a registered nurse. She was 33 years old when she was admitted to the New England Hospital for Women and Children now known as the Dimmock Community health Center in Roxbury.

It took sixteen months to complete the arduous course work, but finish she did, one of only three students to graduate that year out of a class of 40. She single-handedly changed the face of nursing and made it possible for the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, a group that she co-founded, to be received in the White House by President Warren G. Harding.

Born in Dorchester, she grew up in Roxbury. Her parents, Charles Mahoney and Mary Jane Steward Mahoney, moved from North Carolina and eventually landed on 31 Westminster Street in Roxbury.

She attended the Phillips Street School from first grade to fourth. The school building was made of stone and brick and contained six classrooms. According to the 1847 school reports of Boston, the teachers there were required to impress upon their students “the principles of piety, justice and a sacred regard for truth, love for humanity and universal benevolence, sobriety, industry and frugality…”

Not much is known about Mahoney’s early years after she left fourth grade. What little is known was stitched together by Helen S. Miller, herself a registered nurse and, more important, a recipient of the 1968 Mahoney Medal awarded by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. In 1972, Miller published a book, “America’s First Black Professional Nurse.”

Mahoney’s life was shaped by the harsh realities of post- Reconstruction Boston coupled by her own drive to become a nurse. Though blacks in the late 1800s were able to move freely about the city and become elected officials in state and city legislative bodies, jobs were hard to come by, largely because of several factors. At the time, there was an enormous increase in Irish immigrants triggered by the 1840 potato famine. That coincided with a mass exodus of recently freed slaves to the North and industrial cities such as Boston. A clash was inevitable.

“The Civil War was hardly over before the sharp cleavage between the white and Negro worker became apparent,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin.

In 1867, for instance, Franklin cited incidences in Boston in which black ship workers were brought from the South while mostly Irish immigrants were attempting to obtain fair labor practices, including eight-hour work days. Blacks were used to defeat those early unionizing efforts. “As a victim of ruthless and unscrupulous employers,” Franklin said. “the Negro acquired the reputation of being a strikebreaker and one who worked for lower wages than whites…”

Lest anyone forget the Irish at the time were anti-secession but pro-slavery. Their sentiment could be summed up by two lines from one of their march songs:

“To the flag we are pledged — all our foes we abhor — and we ain’t for the ’nigger’ but are for the war…”

Like many other blacks, Mahoney didn’t have many options. She worked as a domestic servant for a while, a washerwoman, cook, janitor, anything to eke out a living.

Her passion was nursing though, something family members later said, became evident when she was about 18 years old.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that she worked unofficially as a nurse for several white families, including the family of Henry Cabot Lodge. In her book, Miller was unable to confirm the family lore.

It doesn’t matter. On page 52 of a little black book filed away in the New England Hospital for Women and Children, these words were found, “Mary E. Mahoney, first coloured girl admitted.”

Most of the school’s nurses were so grateful to learn that they routinely gave back one-fourth of their salaries to help alleviate the hospital’s dire need for money. What is incredible about these acts of gratitude was that the students only earned between $1 and $3 per week, and that money was given to them by the hospital in order for them to purchase their own “simple calico dresses and felt slippers.”

By all accounts, Mahoney was an outstanding nurse.

“I owe my life to that dear soul,” wrote one family.

Sarah Beatty of the New England Hospital staff wrote, “I used to hear her praises sung everywhere around Boston and suburbs.”

Despite all of the love and respect, Mahoney died virtually alone. The official cause of death was cancer. For years she suffered quietly at home in her small apartment on Warwick Street in Roxbury.

Mahoney died January 4, 1926.




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