Skip to main content

Message from the Office of Nursing Programs

Celebrating Black History Month:

Honoring the Past, while Acknowledging Black Nurses Making History as They Lead the Profession into the Future

There is a long history of black nurses who we honor for their efforts to break barriers, challenge practice norms, and engage as leaders and members of nursing and other national organizations that improve health care service delivery . Along with recognizing icons of the past, several of whom are included in this posting, it is important to acknowledge those currently engaged in making history. While forging their way forward through leading members of the largest health profession and disruptions in the entire healthcare delivery system, these leaders have positively improved the lives of the individuals and communities.

Annie Damer (1858-1915)

Serving as the leader, and often founding member of several nursing organizations, Annie Damer was an outstanding nursing leader at the turn of the century -- a critical time in nursing history. Through these memberships, she promoted the advancement of educational standards for nurses; and advocated for legal recognition of the profession of nursing as well as acknowledgement of public health issues such as care for tuberculosis patients and the temperance movement.

Damer worked as a private duty nurse and later in public health, as well as a member of the first Board of Nurse Examiners and later their president as well as serving as president of the Buffalo Nurses Association where she was chair of the committee that organized the first state nurses' association, NYSNA, of which she later served as president. In addition, she was president of the American Journal of Nursing Company and served for five years as the second president of the Nurses' Associated Alumnae (now known as the ANA). Damer later worked with tuberculosis patients in a hospital starting a social services department for them and, in 1906, became supervisor of a convalescent home for children.

Unfortunately, she died from a serious injury incurred in a carriage accident at the height of her career. At the time of her death, Annie Damer was probably one of the most well-known nurses in the country.

Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Graduating from the New England Hospital for Women and Children Training School for Nurses in 1879, Mary Eliza Mahoney was one of only three persons in her class to complete the rigorous 16-month long program. America's first black professional nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney is known for both her outstanding professional career as well as for her exemplary contributions to local and national professional organizations. Mahoney's calm, quiet efficiency and expert, compassionate care inspired glowing testimony from both her patients as well as other nurses.

In 1909, Mahoney gave the welcome address at the first conference of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). In recognition of her outstanding example to nurses of all races, NACGN established the Mary Mahoney Award in 1936. When NACGN merged with the American Nurses Association in 1951, the award was continued. Today, the Mary Mahoney Award is bestowed biennially in recognition of significant contributions in interracial relationships.

Ada Belle Samuel Thoms (1870-1943)

Along with working to ensure equal opportunity for blacks in nursing, Adah Belle Samuel Thoms strove to improve relationships between persons of all races. She graduated from the Lincoln School for Nurses in New York, where she later served 18 years as assistant superintendent of nurses. In 1917, Thoms was among the first to recognize public health as a new field of nursing, adding a course on this subject to the school's curriculum. During her seven-year term as president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Thoms worked for acceptance of black nurses as members of the American Red Cross as well as campaigning for equal rights for black nurses in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. An author, educator, and crusader, she wrote Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses. In 1936, Thoms became the first nurse to receive the Mary Mahoney Award.

Estelle Massey Osborne (1901-1981)

1984 Inductee

Estelle Massey Osborne was the first black nurse in the U.S. to earn a master's degree. In 1945, she became assistant professor at New York University, the university's first black instructor. She held numerous leadership roles in professional nursing and other national organizations.

As president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Osborne increased membership of the organization while also forging relationships with the American Nurses Association (ANA), National League for Nursing, and National Organization for Public Health Nursing. In 1946, she received the Mary Mahoney Award for her efforts to broaden opportunities for black nurses to move into the mainstream of professional nursing. In addition, Osborne was a member of their Board of Directors of the ANA from 1948-1952, serving as a delegate to the International Council of Nurses. She was a member of the National Urban League, first vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women, and an honorary member of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and the American Academy of Nursing. In 1982, the Estelle M. Osborne Memorial Scholarship was established to annually honor a black nurse pursuing a master's degree in nursing.

Hattie Bessent, EdD, MSN, RN, FAAN (1908-2015)

A pioneer in the field of nursing, Hattie Bessent received her BSN degree and MS degree from Indiana University, and EdD in Psychological. Trained as a psychiatric nurse, she demonstrated leadership qualities throughout her varied career in nursing. Bessent was the first African American nurse and woman to receive a Career Teachers Grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and was also the first African American nurse to receive tenure at the University of Florida. While at the University of Florida, she was appointed to the Tenure and Promotion Committee and taught in the Psychological Foundations Department. Bessent held a position of full professor and graduate dean at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Bessent's numerous articles have appeared in the most prestigious journals in nursing. Additionally, Bessent has delivered presentations across the nation, and in South Africa and New Zealand.

Her administrative and management experience includes serving more than 20 years as the longest deputy executive director of the ANA Minority Fellowship Program from 1977 to 1982. As the deputy executive director, she headed two grants to train minority nurses in the mental health disciplines, including directing the Allstate Nursing Scholarship for American Indian/Alaskan Natives. In this role, she was able to provide funding supporting the education of minority nurses, serving as an advocate on behalf of minorities, and as a consultant to government agencies, psychiatric nursing programs, high schools, and institutions of higher learning.

The recipient of some of the most distinguished honors in nursing, Bessent was designated as a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing, at the Academy's 40th Annual Meeting and Conference in 2013. Her other awards included The ANA's Mary Mahoney Award, Linda Richard Award, and the National Black Nurses Association's Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also inducted into the Royal College of Nursing in London, England and recognized for her "lifelong pursuit to improve access to care for all people."

Ernest Grant, PhD, RN, FAAN

Born in 1958, Ernest Grant is an advocate for diversity in the nursing profession and the application of technology in nursing. He is an internationally recognized expert in burn-care and fire-safety. Grant was the first black male president of the North Carolina Nurses Association (NCNA) (2010-2011), and the first male elected president of the American Nurses Association (ANA) (2019-present), the nation's largest professional nurses' organization. He began his career in nursing after completing the licensed practical nursing program at the Asheville Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech). Later, Grant earned a BSN degree from North Carolina Central University and MSN and PhD degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he received the alumni of the year award in 2003.

Frequently sought for both his clinical and educational expertise, Grant served as the burn outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Hospitals and served as adjunct faculty for the UNC Chapel-Hill School of Nursing. In troops deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, he has provided burn education to various branches of the U.S. military. For his work treating burn victims from the World Trade Center in 2002, President George W. Bush presented Grant with a Nurse of the Year Award. In 2013, "for making a difference in preventing the devastating effects of fire and burn injuries and deaths within the state", the North Carolina Fire and Life Safety Education Council awarded Grant the B.T. Fowler Lifetime Achievement Award.

An active participant in professional organizations, in 2002, ANA honored Grant with the Honorary Nursing Practice Award "for his contributions to the advancement of nursing practice through strength of character, commitment, and competence". He was inducted as a fellow into the American Academy of Nursing in 2014. Grant served as second vice president of the American Burn Association board of trustees and is a past chair of the National Fire Protection Association board of directors. He holds membership in Sigma Theta Tau international community of nurses and Chi Eta Phi Sorority.

Information about organizations that continue to lead the way in diversifying and improving the profession of nursing are included below: