DUSON’s African-American History Has Its Foundation in Generations of Black Nursing Leaders

Recognizing the need for the nursing workforce to reflect the population of the United States, over the years leaders of the Duke University School of Nursing (DUSON) have created programs and scholarships to build a more diverse nursing profession.

The first major step occurred nearly 50 years ago in 1967, when Donna Harris became the first African-American student at Duke University School of Nursing. Harris graduated in 1971 and eventually returned to the School as a researcher after spending decades as a clinical instructor, public health nurse and school nurse.


In 1996, C. Eileen Watts Welch, MBA, was named Associate Dean of External Affairs at the School. In this capacity, she was responsible for the School’s fundraising, public relations and alumni affairs efforts. A native of Durham, Welch’s father was North Carolina’s first African-American surgeon.


A decade later, Dorothy L. Powell, EdD, RN, FAAN, came to DUSON and would become the first African-American to attain the rank of full Professor. Powell was the driving force behind the creation of the Office of Global and Community Health Initiatives (OGACHI). Prior to her retirement in early 2014, the School renamed its annual Global Health Lecture in her honor.


The accomplishments of Harris, Welch and Powell are testaments to their commitment and vision for an inclusive nursing workforce that represents all cultures, races and genders. In the years since they blazed the path, we have seen our student body, faculty and staff expand to represent the diversity of the world in which we live. Their achievements, however, were also built on the accomplishments of those African-American nursing leaders who came before them. The following is a short listing of a few of the major figures in the history of nursing in the United States:

Mary Eliza Mahoney became the first registered black nurse in 1879 after graduating from a training program in New England. She was one of only three nurses (the two others were white) to graduate from a class of 40 who began the program. She went on to co-establish the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908. And in recognition of her contribution to the nursing profession, in 1936 the American Nurses Association instituted the Mary Mahoney Award to be awarded to nurses who go above and beyond when it comes to integration and equal opportunities for minorities in the field of nursing.

In 1905, Adah Belle Samuel Thoms graduated from the Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, where the following year she became acting director—a position she held for nearly two decades. An advocate for the rights of professional black nurses, Thoms was instrumental in creating the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and fought for black nurses to be accepted into the American Red Cross. She also sought equal opportunities for nurses in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, even speaking to President Warren G. Harding about the issue on behalf of the 2,000 black nurses in the U.S. at the time.

Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was rejected admission to a local hospital, being told, “We’ve never had a black person in our program, and we never will.” In spite of racial obstacles, Johnson-Brown did become a nurse. Studying at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, she graduated in 1950. She joined the army, working in Japan and later Korea during her service. In the 1960s, she educated surgical nurses during the Viet Nam War. Navigating through the military, she eventually became the first black woman to be promoted to brigadier general and the first to head the 7,000-strong U.S. Army Nurse Corps.


Today, Duke University School of Nursing continues its commitment to providing opportunities for underrepresented populations and developing the next generation of minority nurse leaders. Two such efforts are the Health Equity Academy (HEA), a program funded by a Health Resources and Services Administration Nursing Workforce Diversity grant, and the Winston-Salem State University (WSSU)-Duke Nursing Bridge to the Doctorate Program.

The HEA focuses on social determinants of health (the conditions in which people live that are shaped by money, power and resources), health access, health disparities, diversity and health equity in the preparation of its scholars to become the next generation of minority nurse leaders. The Academy is a competitive academic and professional socialization program for students interested in a career in nursing who aspire to leadership in the profession and advanced levels of graduate education. Scholars are high-achieving/high-potential minority students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Bridge to the Doctorate Program is a collaborative partnership between the WSSU Division of Nursing and Duke University School of Nursing that provides minority nurse scholars enrolled in WSSU's Master of Science in Nursing program with an array of educational and socialization experiences to foster seamless transition into a PhD program in biomedical and behavioral sciences at Duke University. Increasing diversity within the areas of nursing science and academics is critical to the future of biomedical and behavioral research in the U.S. The WSSU-Duke partnership will create a pipeline that primes underrepresented minorities for transition into PhD programs in nursing and other related scientific disciplines.

The legacies of Mahoney, Samuel Thoms, Johnson-Brown, Harris, Welch and Powell are alive and well at DUSON. Our next generation of nursing leaders knows they are drinking from the well that was dug by others, and it will be important that they contribute their story to the rich history of the School and the nursing profession.

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