20 Nurse Leaders Past and Present to Honor for Black History Month

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated March 3, 2023
    Discover 20 Black nursing leaders past and present who have made a significant impact on healthcare.
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    By continually engaging with history, we can put into context contributions that have formed our present society. Black History Month is an opportunity to spotlight the achievements of leaders who have influenced nursing, medicine, and patient care.

    “Black history month is a time of celebration for historical figures that have served as trailblazers for current generations and generations to come,” says Breonna Leon, a nurse practitioner with three years experience. “It is also a time to celebrate those who are striving daily to make history, whether it be through creating opportunities, inspiring others, or simply supporting each other.”

    Each year has celebrated a different theme. These have included citizenship, civil rights, women, and family. The theme in 2022 focuses on the importance of Black health and wellness.

    Black History Month acknowledges the work of scholars and practitioners throughout history who have fostered self-determination and initiatives to build schools and clinics. This page features 20 past and present nursing leaders whose work has influenced healthcare.

    “Black History Month means appreciating, acknowledging, and celebrating the accomplishments of our African American ancestors, while pushing forward to continue on the path which they paved for us,” says Jackie Foulke, CVICU travel nurse of 10 years.

    Influential Black Nurse Leaders to Honor for Black History Month

    Black History Month helps focus national attention on the achievements of Black leaders who have impacted the globe with their activism and accomplishments. Knowing and honoring historical achievements is a powerful motivator to continue these successes.

    For Blair McGhee, a nursing student at Chamberlain University College of Nursing, Black History Month is the “celebration of African Americans, our leaders, and our determination.”

    “I celebrate Black History Month as a reminder of those who have paved the way before me,” says McGhee. “In the month of February we celebrate all of our past and future achievements for Black people in America!”

    The influence and accomplishments of the following 20 nursing leaders have forever improved nursing practice.

    1. Adah Belle Thoms

    Adah Belle Samuel Thoms was born in Virginia in 1870 and moved to New York in the 1890s. She graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, where she was named acting director one year later. She served in that position for 17 years, and because of racist policies, she was never officially named director.

    During her lifetime, she fought for the rights of Black women to serve in the military, which led to the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. She helped start the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. The organization was disbanded in 1950 when Thoms won the fight to integrate nurses into the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the U.S. Armed Forces.

    2. Bernardine Lacey

    Bernardine Lacey, Ed.D., graduated as the first Black student at Georgetown University in 1969 from the registered nurse to bachelor of science (RN-to-BSN) program. She was the founding dean of Western Michigan University School of Nursing in 1994 and served in that position for five years.

    Lacey held leadership roles at several organizations and in 2014 was honored by the American Academy of Nursing as one of four Living Legends that year. Lacey was featured in “‘You Don’t Have Any Business Being This Good’: An Oral History Interview with Bernardine Lacey” published in the American Journal of Nursing in August 2020. The oral history included the mark that racism left on her and her professional growth in the many leadership roles she held. Lacey died on March 26, 2021.

    3. Beverly Malone

    Beverly Malone, Ph.D., is a healthcare leader, innovator, and champion for nurses. She is the CEO of the National League of Nursing and a past president of the American Nurses Association. Malone has been a vocal advocate for nurses to ensure culturally competent care for diverse patient populations. She has worked in education, administration, policy, and clinical practice in psychiatric nursing.

    She also served as deputy assistant secretary for health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Her global achievements include being the first Black general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, the United Kingdom’s (UK) largest professional union of nurses. She served as a member of the U.K. delegation to the World Health Assembly and has the distinguished honor of having her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

    Malone is active on Twitter and LinkedIn.

    4. Edwidge J. Thomas

    Edwidge Thomas, DNP, is an adult nurse practitioner. She graduated from Rutgers University and Columbia University before treating patients at Mount Sinai Hospital. Early in her career, Thomas helped start the first nationally recognized nurse practitioner primary care practice at her alma mater, Columbia University School of Nursing. She went on to become the clinical lead of the Performing Provider System and the clinical assistant professor and director of clinical practice affairs at New York University College of Nursing.

    Thomas has also served on the board of the Nurses Educational Funds since 2017. She currently provides clinical leadership to the business development team at Holdings and Ventures. Thomas has served as a key advisor to prepare nurses for the future of healthcare and integrate advanced practice nurses within the acute and ambulatory settings. She is active on LinkedIn.

    5. Estelle Massey Osbourne

    Estelle Massey Osborne worked hard to change the face of nursing and champion the rights of Black nurses. She was the first Black nurse to graduate from a master’s program and became the first Black instructor at New York University in 1945. She was an administrator, educator, and leader at a time in history when Black women didn’t hold top positions in their fields.

    Additionally, Osbourne was the first Black instructor at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She became the first Black superintendent of nurses at Homer G. Phillips Hospital and helped Black nurses benefit from a bill that provided education for nurses to address a severe nursing shortage. She was also the first Black member of the ANA board of directors. Osborne died in 1981 and was inducted into the ANA Hall of Fame in 1984.

    6. Ernest J. Grant

    Ernest Grant, Ph.D., is an internationally known burn-care and fire-safety expert with over 30 years of nursing experience. He has been a prolific speaker and conducted many burn-care education courses for the U.S. military as they prepared for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was inducted into the American Academy of Nursing as a fellow in 2014 and is the first man to serve as president of the American Nurses Association. He also volunteered at Ground Zero after September 11, 2001, at the Burn Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

    Grant lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and he actively posts on LinkedIn and Twitter. He was interviewed by the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission during Black History Month in 2021. Grant started his career as a licensed practical nurse at a local community college before advancing his nursing career and eventually graduating with his doctor of philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2015.

    7. Goldie D. Brangman

    Goldie Brangman was an accomplished certified registered nurse anesthetist and mentor for others worldwide. Brangman was the first Black president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology and was a founder of the Harlem Hospital School of Nurse Anesthesia. She served as director of the school for 38 years until she retired in 1985. It was at Harlem Hospital where she was on the healthcare team that treated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after an assassination attempt in 1958.

    The New York State Association of Nurse Anesthetists offers a cash scholarship in her name to students in an accredited nurse anesthesia program within New York. Brangman also volunteered with the American Red Cross. She died in 2020 at the age of 102.

    8. Harriet Tubman

    Harriet Tubman may be one of the most well-known individuals who helped free enslaved people in the Southern U.S. states. Tubman was called the “Moses of her people” and served as a scout, spy, soldier, and nurse during the Civil War for the Union Army. She has the distinction of being recognized as the first Black woman to serve in the military. Tubman was born into enslavement but escaped in 1849 with her two brothers. She returned to the South several times to help many others escape slavery. She was so successful that slave owners posted a $40,000 reward for her —dead or alive.

    After the war, she worked alongside Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to win the right for women to vote. She cared for her aging parents and wrote an autobiography with Sarah Bradford. Tubman married a man 20 years her junior and they adopted a daughter. Tubman spent her last years in the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, founded by her just years earlier. She was buried with military honors at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.

    9. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

    General Hazel Johnson-Brown wanted to be a nurse since she was a child. After being rejected by the West Chester School of Nursing because of her race, she enrolled in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. She joined the Army in 1955 and served on the medical-surgical ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 1959 she earned her BSN and returned to the Army.

    She qualified as an operating room (OR) nurse and worked at Walter Reed from 1960-1962 when she left to pursue her master’s degree. She taught OR nurses until 1966 and then accepted a special assignment to evaluate a mobile unit, self-contained, transportable hospital that became the 45th surgical hospital in Vietnam. She was later nominated to become the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps and promoted to brigadier general.

    During her leadership, she started several programs and encouraged quality assurance development in treatment facilities. In 1983 she accepted an appointment as an assistant professor at Georgetown University School of Nursing. She spent her final years with her sister in Wilmington, Delaware, and died in 2011.

    10. Jacqueline Herd

    Jacqueline Herd, DNP, is the executive vice president and chief nursing officer at Grady Health System in Atlanta, Georgia. She started work at Grady in 2009 as the chief nursing officer. Herd has over 20 years of experience in nursing administration and as an executive. It is her passion to inspire and empower leadership in nurses. She has served in several positions at the Georgia Organization of Nurse Leaders (GONL), including as the president-elect and president of the GONL state board.

    Initially, she was on a premed track but changed course in the mid-1990s to earn an master of science in nursing (MSN) and certification as a family nurse practitioner. Herd served on the American Organization of Nurse Leaders board and the Emory University Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing DNP Community Advisory Board. She is responsible for about 1,400 nurses at Grady Health System, who have found that Herd operates as a servant-leader, operating from the bottom up on the administrative pyramid. Herd has a LinkedIn account but is not active.

    11. Katie Hall Underwood

    Katie Hall Underwood was born on Sapelo Island in 1884, the daughter of formerly enslaved people. Years of on-the-job training with other midwives in her community led Underwood to become a midwife. Sapelo Island is the last intact Gullah-Geechee community on the Georgia coast. Underwood delivered nearly everyone on the island who has a parent or grandparent born between 1920 and 1968.

    Her parents were among the founders of one community established after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the enslaved people on the island. There were hundreds of residents living on the island’s 10,000 plus acres across several communities during her career. Underwood nearly always had a black bag filled with medicine, natural remedies, and a book where she recorded the names of the children she delivered. She continued to care for the new mother for weeks afterward, offering advice on how to care for herself and her new baby.

    It is said she didn’t lose one child during a delivery. Underwood died in 1977, yet her legacy lives on through the children she delivered, or “Katie’s babies” as they are called.

    12. Lauranne Sams

    Lauranne Sams, Psy.D., graduated from Butler University with a BSN and then earned an MSN in maternal-infant nursing from Indiana University. She joined the faculty in 1958 and earned a doctorate in educational psychology from Indiana University in 1968. In 1971 she organized the National Black Nurses Association and became the first president. The organization lobbied for equal rights and pay and engaged other organizations to fight for change in nursing.

    By 1974 she was dean at Tuskegee Institute of Nursing, where she served for 10 years before retiring. After leaving Tuskegee for retirement, she pursued her postdoctoral studies in gerontology. The National Black Nurses Association offers a scholarship in Sams’ name to qualified members based on financial need, scholastic achievement, and community service. The scholarship is for students who are pursuing a BSN or other advanced degree.

    13. Lauren Underwood

    Lauren Underwood serves in the 116th U.S. Congress, having been sworn in on January 3, 2019. She is the first woman and person of color to represent the Illinois 14th district in Congress. The 14th district is located on the outskirts of Chicago. She is also the youngest Black woman in the House of Representatives. Underwood actively posts to her Twitter account and Facebook, identifying herself as a nurse, health enthusiast, and an advocate of working families.

    The Congresswoman serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and on Appropriations. While in Congress, she cofounded and now cochairs the Black Maternal Health Caucus, working to improve how health workers and nurses can address maternal outcomes and health disparities. Before being elected to Congress, Underwood served as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and taught future nurse practitioners at Georgetown University’s online master’s program.

    14. Lillian Holland Harvey

    Lillian Holland Harvey was instrumental in starting the first bachelor’s degree in nursing at Tuskegee Institute. She is credited with helping to transform nursing education. As the dean of Tuskegee University School of Nursing, she initiated hands-on hospital experience for students locally and out of state. She served as dean from 1948-1973. She took the time to mentor students and emphasized education and community involvement while balancing work and family.

    She was passionate about education and returned to school to earn her doctorate at age 54, nearly 20 years after completing her master’s degree. Harvey was also involved in civil rights activism. She oversaw the training of Black nurses for military service during World War II and worked to desegregate the Alabama Nurses’ Association. After retiring she served on the National League for Nursing Board of Directors. She was also involved with the Kellogg Foundation, American Red Cross, and the American Journal of Nursing. Harvey died in 1994.

    15. Linda Burnes Bolton

    Linda Burnes Bolton, DrPH, started her nursing career in labor and delivery at Cedars of Lebanon before the hospital merged with Mount Sinai to become Cedars-Sinai. After the merger, she became the first senior vice president and chief health equity officer. She was appointed the vice presidency in nursing in 1991. She served until 2019 when she retired to become one of the principal investigators at the Burns and Allen Research Institute, part of Cedars-Sinai hospital.

    Bolton is a past president of the American Academy of Nursing and the National Black Nurses Association. She serves as a member of several organizations, including the American Public Health Association, American Organization for Nurse Executives, and Association of California Nurse Leaders. She is not active on her LinkedIn account.

    16. Mary Eliza Mahoney

    Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first African American licensed nurse. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts to formerly enslaved people in the spring of 1845. She began working at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in her teen years, where she stayed for 15 years in various roles. The hospital was one of the first nursing schools in the U.S. where Mahoney attended at 33.

    After graduating, she pursued a career in private nursing, where she was known for efficiency, caring, and patience. In 1909 she delivered a welcome address to the first annual convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. This earned her the association chaplain and lifetime membership. She served as the director of Howard Orphanage Asylum for Black children in Long Island from 1911-1912. She retired after working 40 years but continued to champion women’s rights, including the right to vote. She died in 1926 after battling breast cancer for three years.

    17. Sasha DuBois

    Sasha DuBois is a nurse administrator at Bringham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She earned her BSN at Simmons College and MSN from Emmanuel College. DuBois invests her time and energy in nursing education and mentoring nurses to become leaders. She serves on the board of directors for the National Black Nurses Association and as the vice president of the New England Black Regional Nurses Association.

    Dubois is an active member of her church, singing with the young adult choir. She also serves on various community boards, representing and advocating for the rights of women, nurses, and people of color in the community. She is a winner of the 40 under 40 Leaders in Health Awards in 2017.

    18. Sheila Antrum

    Sheila Antrum is the chief operating officer and senior vice president at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). Her job is to ensure that the patient services within the healthcare system meet the university’s vision and objectives. Her goal is to bring more women’s voices to the tables where decisions are made across the country, starting with where she works.

    She cochairs the Women of UCSF Health to learn from the women in the organization who contribute to research, teaching, or clinical practice. The opportunity to continue learning drew her to sponsor the group and lend support and advice to the women working on campus. She has served at the university for nearly 20 years, most recently as the chief nursing and patient care services officer. You can connect with Antrum on her LinkedIn page.

    19. Stephan Davis

    Stephan Davis, DNP, is a healthcare executive, leader, and educator. He has worked at hospitals, insurance companies, and is now the clinical assistant professor at Georgia State University. He teaches classes in leadership, policy, community health, and management. He is also on the board of directors for the Georgia Nurses Association and an inaugural member of the leadership committee of the American College of Healthcare Executives LGBTQ forum.

    Davis earned his doctor of nursing practice at Yale School of Nursing and a master’s in health system administration from Georgetown University. He is board certified as an advanced nurse executive and has other national certifications in finance, education, and healthcare quality. Davis is active on LinkedIn and Twitter, where he identifies himself as the founder and principal of ILLUMINANT.

    20. Sojourner Truth

    Sojourner Truth was an African American abolitionist who lived from 1797-1883. She was born into enslavement in New York as one of 10 or 12 children. During enslavement, she was also a nurse. After being freed from enslavement, she worked for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in D.C. where she advocated on behalf of nursing education and formal training programs.

    In 1849 she began public speaking, working hard for Black and women’s rights. In 1864 she met Abraham Lincoln at the White House. She was best known and remembered for her speech on racial inequalities delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.