NEW YORK NURSE: February 2008
Among the many African American nurses who have contributed to the profession, few are as distinguished as Mary Elizabeth Carnegie.
An honorary lifetime member of NYSNA, she earned her diploma at the Lincoln School for Nursing in New York City. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College, she went on to earn a master’s degree from Syracuse University and a doctorate in public administration from New York University.
Now in her 90s and living in Maryland, Mary Elizabeth Carnegie continues to be an inspiration for generations of black nurses. The following profile was first published in Report, the NYSNA newsletter, in February 1998.
Some of the most significant accomplishments in the struggle for social and economic equality for blacks were achieved early in [the 20th century] by the leaders of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Founded in 1908, the NACGN’s goals were to integrate black nurses into the mainstream of American nursing and to increase equal employment opportunities for them.
Such objectives would have seemed nearly unattainable at the time. Nursing was still struggling to be recognized as an honorable and challenging profession and black Americans still suffered from the ignorance and racism that pervaded the U.S.
Mary Elizabeth Carnegie, in Making Choices, Taking Chances: Nurse Leaders Tell Their Stories, recalls meetings of the Florida State Nurses Association in the late 1940s at which she could be neither housed nor fed with other attendees. Carnegie had to drive to the “black” side of town for meals, because it was against the law for white cabbies to pick up black passengers.
Carnegie’s own career epitomizes the value of mentoring for the black community, and for black nurses in particular. She herself had a mentor long before she became a role model and adviser to young nurses. In 1937, while she was a senior at the Lincoln School, NACGN Executive Director Mabel Staupers guest-lectured there, telling about problems blacks faced in gaining admission to nursing schools, and about discrimination in hiring. Shortly afterward, Carnegie wrote, “I made a solemn pledge to myself that I would do all in my power to break down the barriers keeping black nurses out of the mainstream of professional nursing.”
And there were barriers.
Since the ANA’s structure allowed membership only through its state nurses associations (SNAs) and since black nurses were not allowed to join SNAs in 16 southern states and the District of Columbia, there were no southern black nurses in the ANA. (NYSNA, by contrast, has always been open to nurses of all races.)
In the mid-1940s, Carnegie became the first dean of the school of nursing at Florida A&M University and in 1948 was elected president of the Florida chapter of NACGN. She was appointed a “courtesy member” of the FSNA board of directors, but “without voice or vote.”
“I didn’t care about their rules,” she said. “When I attended their meetings, I spoke up anyway.” The following year, she ran for election to the board and won with the highest number of votes of any candidate.
That, in essence, was the beginning of the end of all-white SNAs. One by one, southern SNAs began permitting full memberships for black nurses. In 1949, with its goals largely achieved, the NACGN voted to dissolve the organization. Its mission and functions were promised to be absorbed by the ANA.
Reflecting on her role in the battle to achieve integration in American nursing, Carnegie said, “I was lucky. I had a black boss, Dr. William H. Gray, president of Florida A&M. Lots of other black nurses would have been fired if they’d done what I did, but Dr. Gray was completely supportive.
“And then,” she added with a smile in her voice, “I had a good time fighting.”
Carnegie joined the editorial staff of the American Journal of Nursing in 1953. She earned a doctorate in public administration from New York University in 1972 and the following year was appointed editor of Nursing Research. Her first editorial appeared just after the American Nurses Foundation published a list of nurses with doctoral degrees.
“That list contained the names of only 46 blacks,” she recalled. “We made up just 5% of all American nurses with doctorates.”
Carnegie’s editorial concluded; “…educational opportunities in general have been limited for minority groups… Knowing these facts may inspire more members of such groups to strive to attain the highest academic credential.”
Spurred by Carnegie’s editorial, the ANA sought and received a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to help minorities obtain PhDs. This was the beginning of the ANA’s Minority Fellowship Program, which obtains and disburses funding for tuition and stipends for qualified minority doctoral students.
Over the past decade, Carnegie’s star has grown even brighter. She was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2000 and received the Dorothy Ford Buschmann Presidential Award from Sigma Theta Tau in 1999. In 2004 she received an honorary doctor of human letters degree from Pace University.