Mary Eliza Mahoney

Freedom Center Voices

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Remembering Healers and Herbal Remedies

Since our last two blog posts featured outstanding men, I decided to feature an outstanding woman—Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926). Mary Mahoney is known as the first African American to earn a nursing degree in the United States. Mary was born in Boston to previously enslaved parents who fled North Carolina seeking a life of freedom. Knowing at an early age that she wanted to become a nurse, she recognized she had a big obstacle to cross. A beautiful young women with dark skin and weighing only 90 pounds, her determination and heart outweighed the strongest of men. Bucking the traditional system, she never married (in that time, married women usually became housewives) and she devoted her life to caring for others.

At age 18, Mary found work at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, which was run by a staff of women. Mary worked at the hospital for 15 years as a cook, maid, laundress and nurse’s aide. In 1878, she was granted a new opportunity. She was finally accepted in to the hospital’s professional graduate school for nursing. It was an intensive 16-month program. Out of 42 students, only four passed. Mary was among the four.

After graduation, Mary worked as a private nurse for over 30 years. Due to the racial inequalities of the time, the private sector was the only option for an African American nurse. In 1911, Mary became the Director of the The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum for African American children in Long Island, New York, serving one year. At age 76, she became one of the first women to register to vote after the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Unfortunately, 1923 brought on a new battle for Mary that she lost 3 years later. On January 4, 1926 she died of breast cancer at the age of 80. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1936, the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses created the Mary Mahoney Award in honor of her achievements, still given today. In 1968, Mary Mahoney Award Winner Helen S. Miller, raised enough money along with other sororities to erect a memorial at Mahoney's gravesite. The memorial is visited by many and signifies the strength and resilience of Mary’s legacy.

As we wait out this pandemic that has taken over the world, we at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center thank all those health care professionals who continue to work the front line. Today, you are our freedom heroes.


Novella Nimmo

Education Coordinator
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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