Why Nurses Should Celebrate Black History Month

Why Nurses Should Celebrate Black History Month

Before the 1870s, Black people were not legally allowed to attend nursing programs. Fast-forward to the present, and up to 11% of nurses in America identify as African American. This was all made possible by the sacrifices and contributions made by countless Black nursing pioneers, across centuries of healthcare history. This February, Black History Month offers us the chance to highlight the trailblazers who shaped the healthcare industry with their hard work, intelligence, and bravery. In educating ourselves on the past and present challenges faced by Black nurses and patients alike, we can eventually reach a deeper understanding with one another.

When did we start observing Black History Month?

Carter G. Woodson proposed the earliest version of Black History Month as a period of highlighting and celebrating the historic contributions of Black men and women across the country. By learning about the unique challenges faced by African American individuals, and how they overcame them to change the status quo for the better, Woodson wished to “shift race relations” towards a more positive place.. Although the format has changed, this spirit of greater tolerance and understanding has remained integral to Black History Month to this day.

How does Black History Month connect with nursing history?

Even before the advent of traditional nursing programs, Black healthcare providers have always existed. Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) braved the frontlines to provide wound care and food to injured Union soldiers, during the Civil War. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) offered care services while advocating passionately for abolition and women’s rights. Most notably, she was the first Black American to win freedom for herself and her infant daughter, in court. Both rose from abusive slave backgrounds to uplift their communities, provide care to the wounded and sick, while inspiring countless African Americans as symbols of freedom and peace.

Though there were always exceptional Black healthcare providers, Black Americans were not allowed to attend formal nursing programs to achieve licensure, until 1845. Mary Eliza Mahoney explicitly pursued a nursing career in order to break barriers and promote racial equality across the nation. Even in the face of severe discrimination, Mahoney thrived as a private nurse for 40 years. Phillips School in Boston, the school she attended, became the very first integrated program in the entire country.  It is not an understatement to say that her bravery changed the entire healthcare industry for the better.

These are just some of the most prominent examples of exceptional Black nurses changing the course of healthcare history, for the better. Omitting Mahoney or Tubman from a comprehensive “history of nursing” would render it illegitimate. Without the contributions of these pioneers, 1/10th of the current nursing workforce would not be legally allowed to practice. In many ways, celebrating Black History Month is celebrating the history of nursing in America.

Why does celebrating black history month still matter?

 Though the nursing industry has progressed a great deal since the 1800s, discrimination continues to be a problem. According to a survey from the  National Commission to Address Racism in Nursing (the Commission), 63% of its correspondents had experienced racist acts from either their peers or superiors. Narrowing things down further, as much as 92% of the African American correspondents reported to be victims of racial abuse and harassment.

HCPs are not the only affected parties, as Black patients are repeatedly affected by racism in healthcare. In more extreme examples, they are completely withheld from treatment altogether on the grounds of discrimination. Even when they are able to secure a care provider, implicit bias or explicit racism has a direct link with worse health care outcomes and inaccurate diagnoses. One of the most infamous examples of this is the misconception that black people have “thicker skin” or are “less receptive to pain.” This has no grounds on actual science, and is primarily rooted in deeply racist assumptions held in the 1920s. As a direct result, Black patients may end up receiving an inadequate amount of pain medication or anesthesia, which can lead to complications with (potentially) fatal consequences.


Black History Month is an invitation to learn about the history of nursing’s history. Instead of existing as a bundle of racist assumptions in their head, people can learn and experience the rich history and culture of African Americans in nursing. By highlighting the different contributions, struggles and triumphs of Black nurses in the past and present, we can move closer to a place of mutual understanding and tolerance. It is not the singular solution to racism and discrimination in American healthcare, but it is a step in the right direction.

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