This Juneteenth, we honor the abolitionist nurses
As nurses dare to imagine a world where care is the guiding principle, where we don’t have to fight the greed of our employers at every turn, and where no one is turned away for lack of ability to pay, we’re called to action by the legacy of the movement for the abolition of slavery. We are especially humbled and encouraged by abolitionist nurses who were critical to that movement — and who proved that a more just and healthy world is possible, even while challenging an entire national economy built on slavery.
Today is Juneteenth, an annual holiday marking June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas finally learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years earlier and the Civil War had ended. They were among the very last to hear the news that they were free. To commemorate Juneteenth, we are honoring several of these incredible abolitionist nurses, reflecting on key lessons from their work, and getting reinspired in our own fight to achieve a society based on care.
Many people know Harriet Tubman as an abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad. After she liberated herself from slavery in 1849, she spent the next 10 years guiding others to freedom. Along the way, she fought slave-catching patrols — early prototypes of modern policing — and prevailed. In 1863, she led 150 Black soldiers in the Combahee River raid. They rescued more than 700 enslaved people.
A lesser-talked-about part of her history is the fact that Tubman was a nurse. During the Civil War, she volunteered as a spy, scout, cook, laundress, and nurse for the Union Army. In 1865, Harriet began caring for wounded Black patients at the Colored Hospital at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Tubman sought out and boiled roots and herbs and made a tincture to help these patients recover from dysentery and other illnesses. She used the tools she had at hand to heal her patients, and it worked.
“She nursed our soldiers in the hospitals, and knew how, when they were dying by numbers of some malignant disease, with cunning skill to extract from roots and herbs, which grew near the source of the disease, the healing draught, which allayed the fever and restored numbers to health,” Sarah H. Bradford wrote in her 1886 biography Harriet: The Moses of Her People.
In the spirit of nurse abolitionist Harriet Tubman, we celebrate the ongoing movement for freedom. We thank her for teaching us to imagine the impossible, to fight with everything we’ve got, and to build institutions that advance freedom.
Sojourner Truth is known as a crusader for abolition and women’s rights. Her speech to the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, popularly known as “Ain’t I a woman?” was ahead of its time in centering Black women’s experiences of both racism and sexism — although the accuracy of its popular wording has been called into question.
What isn’t as well known about Truth is that she was a pioneer in nursing practice and education. Truth first served as a nurse while enslaved by the family of John Dumont in West Park, New York. She escaped to freedom ahead of the 1827 Emancipation Act and initially settled in Michigan during the Civil War, where she collected food and clothing for Black regiments. In 1863, Truth moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked in Union hospitals, caring for ill and wounded patients, teaching domestic skills, and dedicating herself to relief work for freed people.
As a free woman, Truth advocated to Congress for formal nursing education programs, even though she herself never had that opportunity. Sojourner Truth’s insistence on higher standards of care and cleanliness had a lasting impact on the field of nursing that we still benefit from today. We celebrate her fierce commitment to a healthier world, and we aspire to continue to build on her legacy of fierce activism and advocacy.
Susie King Taylor
As a young, enslaved girl on an island off the coast of Georgia, Susie King Taylor had secretly been taught to read and write. When she was freed from slavery in 1861, she put her skills to use for the Union Army in many different roles, including as a nurse.
Taylor cared for wounded soldiers, even sneaking into the tents of soldiers who had been quarantined with smallpox to help them recover. She eventually started a school for Black children and soldiers and served for more than three years traveling with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops.
“I was very happy to know my efforts were successful in camp, and also felt grateful for the appreciation of my service. I gave my services willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad, however, to be allowed to go with the regiment to care for the sick and afflicted comrades,” Taylor wrote in her diary at the time.
We are inspired by Taylor’s service, and we are also aware that she deserved compensation that she never received for her hard work. In fact, all of the abolitionist nurses profiled here were not paid for the nursing care they provided. While their incredible work was undervalued, their activism is a guiding light for nurses’ continued commitment to ending oppression and pay inequity in the workplace, while fighting for racial justice and a healthy world for all people. Their activism surely set the stage for union nurses to be fairly compensated for our work today, and to fight for fair wages when we are not.
Abolition wasn’t just about tearing down institutions of slavery. It was, and is, about building institutions that advance freedom for all. As union nurses, we carry forward this workin our fight for workplace safety, and in our advocacy beyond the bedside to improve the social determinants of health for our patients and the public. We can thank the abolitionist nurses for showing us just how much radical change is possible.