Profiles in Leadership

Celebrating Nurses of Color

For Black History Month 2021, the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing will be profiling leaders of color in the nursing world. Check back throughout this month as we add leaders from across nursing's history and our own here at FPB.

Historical photo of Jamaican-British nurse Mary Seacole.
National Geographic Society

Mary Seacole

The concept of the modern nursing profession is traced to the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the efforts of British nurse and epidemiologist, Florence Nightingale. But at the same time, Jamaican-British nurse Mary Seacole also served in that same war.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Scottish lieutenant in the British army and a Jamaican “doctress,” Seacole learned traditional Caribbean and African medicine and healing remedies from her mother. Like her mother before her, Seacole treated outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera among the British garrisons. 

She was known as “Mother Seacole” by soldiers she treated soldiers near the front lines. The British Military hospital rejected her offer of assistance as a nurse, but Seacole remained determined to go and help soldiers she had known in the British Caribbean colonies. Seacole traveled on her own to the conflict and established the British Hotel close to the front lines fighting.

Learn more about Mary Seacole:

The Mary Seacole Trust

The Mary Seacole exhibit at the Florence Nightingale Museum

National Geographic Resource Library: Mary Seacole

Historical photo of Mary Eliza Mahoney in her nursing uniform.
National Women's History Museum

Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN

Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN, was the first Black American to earn a professional nursing license. Her parents, freed from slavery, moved from North Carolina to Massachusetts where Mahoney was born in 1845. From a young age, Mahoney knew she wanted to become a nurse, and began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children as a teenager. The hospital, which served only women and minor-aged patients, had an exclusively all-female staff of physicians and operated one of the nation’s first nursing schools.

For 15 years, Mahoney worked as a maid, a cook, a custodian and occasionally a nurse’s assistant. In 1878, when Mahoney was 33 years old, she was admitted to the New England Hospital for Women and Children’s professional graduate school for nursing. After a grueling 16-month program, Mahoney was one of four women to graduate in 1879.

Following graduation, Mahoney pursued a career in private nursing, practicing for four 40 years. In addition to her dedication to practice, she was also active in professional nursing organizations, joining the Nurses Associated Alumnae of the United States and Canada, which later became the American Nurses Association, in 1896. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908.

Learn more about Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN:

The National Women’s History Museum: Mary Eliza Mahoney

American Association for the History of Nursing

CHAAMP Resources: Mary Eliza Mahoney

Nursing Theory.org: Mary Eliza Mahoney, First African American Nurse

“Hospital Founded by Women for Women,” a history of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Jamaica Plain Historical Society

Black and white photo of Dr. Rhetaugh G. Dumas.
African American History Program

Rhetaugh Dumas, PhD, RN, FAAN

A distinguished nurse, educator and researcher, Rhetaugh Dumas, PhD, RN, FAAN, was the first woman, the first African American and the first nurse to serve as a deputy director at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the 1950s she worked as a nurse and substitute teacher in the segregated schools in her hometown of Natchez, Mississippi. In the 1960s, after earning her master’s degree in psychiatric nursing at Yale University, she went on to teach at the school and continued to merge her passions of nursing, teaching and improving health policy.

Throughout the 1970s, Dr. Dumas served in multiple key leadership positions at the NIMH, including chief of the Psychiatric Nursing Education Branch and ultimately the deputy director of NIMH’s Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration. She was also a charter Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, and a former president of the organization.

Dr. Dumas became a nurse because of her mother, who dreamed of becoming a nurse but no local schools would admit a Black students and her family could not afford to send her to one that would.

“From infancy, I was told that when I grew up, I was going to be a nurse. Not just an ordinary nurse, mind you, but one who would be admired by people all around the country—not only for her personal achievements, but more importantly, for her contributions toward improving the welfare of others,” Dr. Dumas told Columbia University health sciences graduates in a 2003 commencement address.

Learn more about Rhetaugh Dumas, PhD, RN, FAAN

Academic Leader, NIMH Trailblazer Dr. Rhetaugh Dumas – MinorityNurse.com

Rhetaugh G. Dumas Progress in Diversifying Award – University of Michigan

Rhetaugh Graves Duman – African American History Program

Remembering Rhetaugh Graves Dumas, PhD, RN, FAAN – Nursing Outlook

Rhetaugh Dumas: 1929-2007 – The Washington Post via The Chicago Tribune

Rhetaugh Dumas (’61) – Yale University School of Nursing

Photo of Betty Smith Williams

Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN

Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN, has been a leader from the start of her nursing career.  Her mother was an advocate for minority rights and a leader in the South Bend, Indiana, chapter of the NAACP in the 1930s. Dr. Williams has spent her career pursuing equity in nursing and community health, focusing on acute health problems in minority communities.

In 1954, Dr. Williams was the first African American graduate of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University. In 1955, she moved to Los Angeles, California, to work for the Department of Health, and was later recruited to teach public health nursing at Mount St. Mary's College. She was the first Black woman in California to be hired to teach in a baccalaureate program.

Black and white photo of Betty Smith Williams

Apart from her distinguished career in nursing and higher education, which includes implementing the first nursing PhD program at the University of Colorado where she served as Dean of the School of Nursing (1979-1984), Dr. Williams has been a champion for supporting nurses of color through professional organizations. She has co-founded three such groups, the Council of Black Nurses in Los Angeles (1968), the National Black Nurses Association (1971) and the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Associations (1998).

A fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, Dr. Williams was named a Living Legend by the organization in 2010, its highest honor.

Learn more about Betty Smith Williams, DrPH, RN, FAAN

"Uniting Nurses of Color: A Pioneer in the Field," THINK Magazine, Fall 2016

"Betty Williams, Breaking the Color Barrier in Nursing," Working Nurse

Past Presidents, NCEMNA

Dig into History

Looking for more information on the history of African Americans in nursing? Consider the following publications.

Seacole, M. (1857). Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. James Blackwood Paternoster Row, London. Available on the UPenn Digital Library.

Carnegie, M. E. (1999). The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1854-1994: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1854-1994 (3rd ed.). Jones & Bartlett Learning.