History Tidbit: African American Nurses in VA

In Honor of Nurses Week
The first known African American nurses in VA’s history were hired in 1923 to staff the first segregated Federal veterans hospital at Tuskegee, Alabama, then known as U.S. Veterans Hospital No. 91. Veterans Bureau Director General Frank T. Hines defied very public and relentless protests from the Ku Klux Klan to have the new hospital staffed by white personnel and in the summer of 1923 he publicly announced that the hospital would be staffed by African American medical professionals.

Women of all heritages and backgrounds stepped out of their homes and private realms and assumed more public roles as nurses during the American Civil War, where they provided aid to surgeons and comfort to soldiers. Harriet Tubman was one of many African American women who served as a nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the war. There were no formal nursing schools in America before the Civil War, so women who had caring dispositions and were interested in helping the war effort became de facto nurses, learning “on the job” skills at the rear of battlefields and in military hospitals.

One of the consequences of the Civil War was that, afterwards, it spawned phenomenal growth of the medical and nursing fields in America. The first U.S. nursing schools were established around 1873. Mary E.P. Mahoney is believed to be the first African American to graduate from a nursing school—the New England Hospital for Women and Children—in 1879.

By 1890 roughly 400 nursing schools were established and provided women with career opportunities as never before. In the first decade of the 20th century, nursing became professionalized, requiring formal training, graduation, and state licensure. The first nursing organizations and journals came into existence then, too, at a time when racial segregation became firmly rooted in American society. The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses was founded in 1908 by and for African American professional nurses and they worked tirelessly to end discrimination in the nursing field.

African American nurses were recruited and served with military nursing corps in segregated units during World War I. They proved themselves to a skeptical public, saving the lives of many soldiers, and earned a place in all American wars since then. President Truman initiated the end of racial integration in the military and federal government with Executive Order 9981 in 1948 and soon afterwards, in 1951, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses disbanded and joined the American Nurses Association (ANA).

The Veterans Administration ended racial segregation of veterans in its hospitals in 1954 and not until the mid-1960s did African American employees ascend into leadership roles in VA’s integrated hospitals. Vernice Ferguson was the first African American nurse appointed as VA’s Director of Nursing in 1980 and she held that position for 12 years, retiring in 1992.
Story courtesy VA Historian









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