Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization (Seattle)

  • By Mary T. Henry
  • Posted 2/08/2009
  • Essay 8925

On July 9, 1949, there were 13 African American registered nurses in Seattle and it was on this day that they were called together at the home of Anne Foy Baker to form the Mary Mahoney Registered Nurses Club (later known as the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Association, and presently as the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization). The main purpose of establishing the organization was to promote the personal and professional development of members.  Indeed it became a sisterhood of support and friendship for these young women, most from the South, who had come to this Northwest city to practice their nursing skills. Through the years the club has also developed programs to serve the community in health-care awareness and has offered  scholarships to prospective nursing students. In 2009 there are approximately 40 members in the organization. 

Mary Mahoney: A Pioneering Nurse

The club honors the name of the first African American registered nurse in the United States.  Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926) was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and became interested in nursing when she was a teenager.  For 15 years she worked in various menial positions at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts. 

In 1878, when she was 33 years old, she began nurses' training there at the first institution in the United States to provide it. One of the first women doctors in the country, Dr. Marie Zakrzewska (1829-1902), established the program.  Mahoney received her nursing diploma on August 1, 1879. In 1936, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses created an award in honor of Mahoney for women who contributed to racial integration in nursing. The American Nurses Association  inducted her into the Nursing Hall of Fame in 1976, 50 years after her death. 

Seattle Pioneers in Nursing 

These founding members of the Mary Mahoney Club were African American pioneers in nursing in Seattle. They were hired in area hospitals from 1943-1947.

  • Katie Stratman Ashford  (1919-1996)
  • Anne Foy Baker
  • Juanita Alexander Davis (1919-2009)
  • Gertrude Robinson Dawson (1919-2009)
  • Ira Gordon
  • Maxine Pitter Haynes (1919-2004)
  • Mary Marshall Davis Hooks (b. 1919)
  • Mary Turner Stephens Lanier (1921-1988)
  • Mary Martyn
  • Rachel Suggs Jones Pitts (b. 1921)
  • Celestine Hodge Thomas (1919-2000)
  • Sadie Haynes Berrysmith Wallace (1921-1998)
  • 1922).

The information about these pioneer nurses is from their oral histories published in Lois Price Spraten's book, African American Registered Nurses in Seattle.
Early Education
Most of  these women were from Southern states with segregated schools. Some were from rural areas, which required that they move from their homes to a nearby city to receive a high school education, but early on each one of them felt a strong desire to become a nurse. 

They were inspired in many different ways. As a child, one had nurtured sick chicks on the family farm and found the experience so satisfying that  she desired to become a nurse.  Some were influenced by their parents or by admiring the service of practical nurses in their homes or admiring the wonderful capes they wore. One had enjoyed the services of hospital nurses when, as a child, she was recovering from a tonsillectomy. After finishing high school they all sought nurse training in the limited number of hospitals which accepted African American students.                     

Nurse Training
Since most of these young women were from the South they sought entrance to schools in the area.  Most of them applied and were accepted at Brewster Hospital and Nurse Training School in Jacksonville, Florida, the first hospital for African Americans in the city and which is now on the U. S. Register of Historic Places.  The hospital had clinical affiliations with Grady Hospital in Atlanta and Freedman's Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the young women went during their last year. 

As they progressed  through their three-year training, their caps indicated their status:  caps at six months; adding a narrow black band after one year; a second band a year later; and finally replacing these bands with a wider black band just before graduation when they received their diploma and became registered nurses. Some of the others received their nurse training at Piedmont Sanatorium in Burkville, Virginia; Grady School of Nursing in Atlanta, Georgia; the Mississippi State Charity Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; Homer Phillips Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri; and Lincoln School of Nursing in the Bronx, New York.
Employment in Seattle
Each of these founding members of the Mary Mahoney Professional Nurses Organization were employed in Seattle between 1943 and 1947. Many read advertisements in the American Journal of Nursing offering employment at Harborview  Hospital in Seattle, the King County hospital now administered by the University of Washington. 

When they called about nursing positions, they were interviewed on the phone and hired on the spot. In 1941, however, when Mary Martyn applied (after moving to Seattle), she was denied employment. In 1943, Ida Gordon became the first African American nurse to be employed at Harborview Hospital. They resided in the nurses' quarters located in Harborview Hall, an Art Deco building across the street from the hospital on 9th Avenue, and which now houses offices. 
Although they had suffered hardship and struggles before arriving in Seattle, they also encountered discrimination and indignities during their employment at Harborview.  A few patients refused to be attended by black nurses. They were assigned split shifts, worked nights and evenings and had more than their share of weekends and holiday hours.

They were also denied opportunities to advance to head nurse, were assigned the sickest patients and made less money than their white counterparts.  Because of their strong spiritual base and a devotion to their profession, they endured with dignity.
Native Seattleites Become Registered Nurses
The experience of the Seattle nurses was different from that of their Southern associates.  The two Seattle registered nurses, Juanita Alexander Davis and Maxine Pitter Haynes, for instance, went to the Seattle Public Schools, which were integrated.  They lived in the Central Area and both graduated from Garfield High School. They were also members of pioneer African American families in Seattle.
The grandparents of Juanita Alexander Davis were Charles H. and Eva Ellis Harvey, who moved from Minneapolis to Seattle in 1887 and rented quarters in the Belltown area of Seattle.  Later they moved to quarters a block south of the present-day Seattle Art Museum on 2nd Avenue.  After leaving his employment on the Northern Pacific Railroad Mr. Harvey became a carpenter and owned his own construction company.  He was one of three founders of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church and built the original part of the church located at 14th Avenue between Pine and Pike streets.
After completing high school Ms. Davis had no trouble entering the University of Washington where she completed all requirements for admission to the B.S. program at the school of nursing.  Unfortunately and to her surprise she was told by Dean Elizabeth Soule (1884-1972) that there were no African American RNs in Seattle and also suggested that she seek another career.  This was one of her first experiences with racism.  She applied to the new Homer Philips Hospital in St. Louis and completed her training there. She returned to Seattle in 1945 and was hired at the King County Public Health Department becoming the agency's first African American RN.
Maxine Pitter Haynes was the daughter of  Seattle pioneers Edward A. Pitter (1886-1974) and Marjorie Allen Pitter.  He was a Jamaican who came to Seattle as a captain's steward on a passenger line in 1909 during the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.  Ms. Pitter was a direct descendent of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago.
Ms. Haynes also entered the University of Washington  intending to study at the School of Nursing but after completing all of her requirements she too was told by Dean Soule that she could not be admitted. After changing her major to sociology she graduated in 1941 and went to the Lincoln School of Nursing in Bronx, New York.  She returned to Seattle in 1945 and became the first black RN to be hired at Providence Hospital (now part of Swedish Hospital) at Cherry Hill.
An Apology
 In 2001, following a presentation of  Spratlen's book at Hogness Auditorium in the Health Sciences Center at the University of Washington, Dean Nancy Wood of the School of Nursing read a letter apologizing for the past discriminatory actions of the school.
Lelia Duffel was the first African American nurse to be admitted to the University of Washington School of Nursing. She graduated in the class of 1949. 
Triumphs of Members 

Gertrude Dawson, the first African American nurse to be hired by Group Health Hospital (in 1956) was chief nurse-negotiator for salaries and benefits in 1965.  She negotiated the highest monthly salary increase of $45 a month that nurses in the state of Washington had ever received.  In 1970 she founded the Metropolitan Sickle Cell Task Force to provide screening and counseling for families affected by the disease.
Shirley Gilford became the first African American nurse to be  hired by the Seattle Public Schools (in 1962). She was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2000.

Mary Lee Bell provided Public Health nursing services to high-risk, low-income families for 39 years and served as Personal Health Services supervisor for more than 30  Public Health nurses, registered nurses, nutritionists, and social workers for the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health. She was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2000.
Frances Terry became a clinical instructor at Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University.
Maxine Haynes in 1970 joined the faculty at the University of Washington in Division of Continuing Education as Associate Professor and joined the Seattle Pacific University as Associate Professor of Community Health Nursing in 1976.  A nursing scholarship in her name was established at Swedish Hospital at Cherry Hill.
Elizabeth Thomas, at Odessa Brown Children's Clinic, in 1975 became the first African American pediatric nurse practitioner in the state of Washington. She was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2000.
Vivian Lee, federal administrator for Region X United States Department of Health and Human Services and founding director of the Office of Women's Health, was recipient of numerous awards including the Department's Excellence Award, Charles E. Odegaard Award, and the Distinguished Service Award from the University of Washington Nursing Alumni Association.
Muriel Softli served as flight nurse in the U.S. Air Force Reserve during Operation Desert Storm and was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2000.
Lois Price-Spratlen, Professor of Psychosocial and Community Health Nursing at the University of Washington, was appointed University Ombudsman in 1988. Her book African American Registered Nurses in Seattle published in 2001 is a moving testimony to the religious faith and devotion to nursing exhibited by these pioneer nurses despite discrimination and hardships. She was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
Anne Foy Baker was inducted into the Washington State Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

Sources:  Lois Price Spratlen, African American Registered Nurses in Seattle (Seattle: Peanut Butter Publishing, 2001);  "Ann Foy Baker, RN," Washington State Nurses Association website accessed February 1, 2009 (; "Mary Eliza Mahoney: First African-American Graduate Nurse," (; "Mary Eliza Mahoney: First Black Nurse," Bridgewater State College Office of Institutional Diversity website accessed February 1, 2009 (;  Danuta Bois, "Mary Eliza Mahoney," Distinguished Women of Past and Present website accessed February 1, 2009 (; Mary Henry interview with Shirley Gilford, January 17, 2009, Seattle; Mary Henry interview with Lois Price Spratlen, January 21, 2009, Seattle; Nick Koveshnikoa, "Mending the Scars," University Daily, November 28, 2001.

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