By Cathy Kennedy, RN and President, California Nurses Association
As a nurse, history is a part of my daily life. Often, it’s a patient’s history. Sometimes, it’s the history of the hospital where I work or the community we serve. These histories are important for the health of patients, communities, our country, and our world.
We’re at a critical moment in U.S. history right now. In addition to the ongoing pandemic and all its fallout (much of it still tragically racialized), we’ve seen years of emboldened hostility against people of color and, now, coordinated right-wing efforts to control what future generations know about our history as a nation. On top of this, GOP-led voter suppression tactics are being used to curtail the role our communities have in determining our collective future. These efforts target Black, Indigenous, Brown, and other people of color. The right wing intends to suppress a true reckoning with our country’s history of racism and other oppressions, as well as to bury the centuries-long history of struggles for racial justice, economic justice, democracy, and liberation. These attacks on our history are also attacks on our future, and on the stake our communities have in fighting for a better world.
When I think about these struggles during Black History Month, I often turn to the history of Black nurses in the United States as a guiding light, a reminder that nurses like me have been fighting to save lives and call out injustice throughout this country’s history. Through it all, Black nurses have played such an inspiring role in the fight for Black liberation and racial justice.
The North Star in this sky is Harriet Tubman. Many people know her as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad, as the woman who liberated herself from slavery in 1849 and spent years courageously guiding others to freedom while leading fights like the Combahee River Raid and prevailing against slave-catching patrols — early prototypes of modern policing. Alongside these well-known accomplishments, Tubman was also a nurse who used her brilliance and commitment to heal and care for others. Volunteering as a nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet began caring for wounded Black patients in 1865.
Sojourner Truth, another renowned historic hero, also contributed much to the nursing profession. She began nursing while living as an enslaved person, before going on to care for Union soldiers during the Civil war, and eventually testifying before Congress, advocating for the creation of formal nursing education programs. Truth may have lacked the formal licensure of a registered nurse, but not our guiding spirit of care.
I’m also inspired by Emma Reynolds. After being denied entry to nursing school due to her race, Reynolds helped establish Chicago’s Provident Hospital, the first integrated, Black-owned hospital in the United States. Reynolds, who wanted to become a nurse after seeing racial health disparities firsthand as a teacher, was in the first class of graduates from the hospital’s training school. She would go on to become the first Black woman to earn an MD from Northwestern University. She later became the head nurse at Freedman’s Hospital, now Howard University Hospital.
As union nurses, we recognize how much more might be possible if these inspiring stories from our history were promoted in schools. We also need to ensure that nurses, especially Black nurses and nurses of color, don’t suffer the same barriers to education and licensing that people like Reynolds did. We need to pressure hospitals to remove barriers to hiring nurses with associate’s degrees alongside nurses with bachelor’s degrees — this policy shift alone could do so much to bring diversity and the strength that comes with it to our nursing workforce. And that is only the tip of the iceberg on tackling institutional racism in our workplaces, something I see my fellow nurses of color struggle with and something evident in racial disparities in health outcomes.
All of the nurses I described are remembered as heroes, and rightly so. Their stories are reminders of why we must speak out and take action against racism. As a union member, I also know that none of them did it alone; they did it by standing in solidarity with their colleagues, their patients, and their communities. And so I am also inspired by the countless Black nurses who, though they may have been rendered nameless by history, were no less monumental in their contributions to our shared history.
Even as Black History Month comes to a close, I know that Black history lives with us every month of the year, calling us to continue the fight to confront systemic racism in our communities and our hospitals, as so many nurses have done before us. Being prepared to call racism out is an important step toward the necessary conversations we must have about the damage being done by words and deeds. Nurses know that harm comes in many forms, but so does healing.
In the spirit of all these nurses past and present, we celebrate the ongoing movement for Black liberation. We thank them for teaching us to imagine the impossible, to fight for justice, and to collectively build institutions that advance freedom while challenging those that would keep it from us.