Honoring Those Who Came Before Us

Mary Eliza Mahoney (left) and Harriet Tubman (right)

Black History Month is one of my favorite times of the year. “It is an opportunity to honor the luminaries who came before us and celebrate the justice seekers still among us,” said Judith Cutchins, RN.

It’s a time to learn about the important moments in this nation’s history — moments shaped or influenced by Black Americans and Black people from across the diaspora. I think about Harlem Renaissance writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Nella Larsen. I am comforted by the memory of writers such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou and more.

I am inspired by the work of freedom fighters such as Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Ture, Fred Shuttlesworth, Medgar Evers and more. I also celebrate Black people who made history in healthcare — people like Mary Eliza Mahoney who holds the distinction of being the first Black nurse in history to earn a professional nursing license. Although Black people frequently served in nursing capacities, Mahoney was the first to obtain a nursing license. She fought for increased access to nursing education and challenged discrimination at a time when the faintest hint of dissent could be deadly.

She was not alone

Many in the nation may know her as a brave and determined conductor of the Underground Railroad, but Harriet Tubman served as a nurse during the Civil War. She tended to Black soldiers and newly freed slaves. Certainly, Black people have often tapped into indigenous practices and wisdom to care for the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of one another. This was a necessity as many hospitals and health facilities refused Black patients or offered substandard care when Black people did receive service. Black people also faced severe exploitation which planted seeds of mistrust that continue to sprout today. For instance, the Tuskegee Experiment, which secretly injected Black patients with Syphilis, still inspires fear and suspicion. The forced sterilization of Black people (as well as Latino, Native and poor people) also created fear.

These crimes against humanity created a mistrust in government and healthcare providers. They also inspired many in the community to go to school to become therapists, nurses, and physicians.

Defying the Odds

In 1864, Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler defied the odds by becoming the first Black woman doctor of medicine. To put that in perspective, that was only a couple years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which then-President Abraham Lincoln issued. Shortly after the Civil War’s end, Crumpler, a free-born woman, went to Richmond, Virginia, to provide medical care for formerly enslaved people. She often faced discrimination from her colleagues and pharmacies but kept her focus on helping women and children. She later moved back to Boston and treated patients with little focus on their ability to pay. In 2019, Virginia governor Ralph Northam made March 30 Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler Day.

Black History Across the Diaspora

We know that Black history stretches across the diaspora. That is why NYSNA is proud to honor Mary Seacole who was a British-Jamaican nurse who established the “British Hotel” to care for soldiers during the Crimean War. From a child, many of us have heard about the heroism of Florence Nightingale. But Seacole had an impact as well. She traveled the world caring for cholera patients, before establishing a hotel to care for sick and wounded soldiers. At the beginning of the 21st century, in 2004, Seacole was voted as the Greatest Black Briton, and her statue was unveiled in London in 2016.

Honoring All the Heroes

During Black History Month, one could be forgiven for solely focusing on the Black leaders whose accomplishments have drawn recognition and praise. However, I am also moved by the people society is less likely to recognize. Whether because they weren’t as well known, they were women or they had imperfect lives, there are many Black figures who influenced history who have been overlooked. And as it was in the past, so it is in the present. Therefore, when I think about Black history, I think about the people securing Black futures. It is people like you. I think about Black nurses across New York state and beyond. I think about Black doulas who enter the profession to support the parent, child and community. It is the grassroots organizers working to address air pollution and the climate crisis. The activists working to ensure all children have opportunities to learn bring me hope. It is the healthcare workers who must simultaneously be nurse, friend, family member and advocate. It is you.

This Black History Month, I hope we take time to sit with history. “Black history is not just reserved for Black people; it is all our history,” said NYSNA President Nancy Hagans, RN. We should also intentionally celebrate the leaders who walk among us and are having an impact today.

NYSNA Celebrates Black History

For every Black historical figure, there are contemporary leaders making an impact. Let’s see and honor them. That is why NYSNA is hosting a series of events to celebrate Black History.

  • On February 10, NYSNA’s Social Justice and Civil Rights Committee hosted a film screening and discussion of Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed film, “The 13th.”
  • On February 15, from 7:45-8:30 PM, New York State Senator Zellnor Myrie will host a teach-in on his voting rights bill, the John R. Lewis New York State Voting Rights Bill.
  • On February 16, from 6:00-7:15 PM, there will be a New York Labor History Association panel discussion, “Organizing the Black Medical Community: Past, Present, and Future.”
  • There will also be a full-day Racial Justice Training on February 17 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 PM. The goal of the training is to offer members a common framework on the historical context that has produced  deep inequities and racial disparities in health outcomes for patients and communities.
  • Finally, on Thursday, February 24 at 7:00 PM, NYSNA will host a panel discussion with Healthcare Advocates on Health Equity. We will discuss the current challenges we are facing and what role healthcare workers can play to advocate for healthcare justice and equity.

To participate or register for any of these events, please go to bit.ly/NYSNABHM22.

Regardless of your identity, this is a month meant for all. I hope you know that because they fought and won, you can too. We may never be able to throw our hands up and say, “Our fight is over,” but we can say that progress is within reach.

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