Nation’s first black
nurse from Roxbury
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
“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.