Making Changes Towards Equality in Health Care: Brief History of the National Black Nurses Association

The National Black Nurses Association was founded by 18 nurses due to the lack of representation and leadership roles for Black nurses in the American Nursing Association during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  December of 1971, in the home of Dr. Mary Harper, the nurses unanimously voted to approve the establishment of the National Black Nurses Association.  By September 6th, 1972 – almost a year later—the official Articles of Incorporation of the National Black Nurses Association, Inc. was assigned.

For about 50 years, the organization has focused on providing top quality care for people of color and the best education and opportunities for Black nurses and nursing students. Each NBNA chapter and its direct members provide health screenings and health education throughout the nation. The services include, but are not limited to, high blood pressure, blood glucose, cholesterol, HIV, COVID-19, cancer, sickle cell, and mental health. They strive to provide services to those who cannot afford health care due to social and economic disadvantages.

National Black Nurses Association Group Picture
Sitting: Phyllis Jenkins, Lauranne Sams, Betty Smith Williams and Ethelrine Shaw. Standing: Gloria Rookard, Betty Jo Davidson, Mary Harper, Doris Wilson, Mattiedna K. Johnson, Phyllis Davis, Mattie Watkins, and Florrie Jefferson

There are two notable founders to highlight from the NBNA. Credited for suggesting the formation of the organization, Betty Smith Williams later became their president from 1995-1999. Nurse Williams was the first African American nurse to graduate nursing school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the first Black person to teach at a college or university level in California. She has famously been quoted saying, “I thought Black nurses needed a way to communicate with each other. We had no voice, but we understood our culture and our unique needs better than anyone else.”

This sentiment was shared with her fellow co-founder Mattiedna Johnson, who was the only African American, nurse and lab tech to work on the U.S. Army Medical Corp penicillin project. She applied her experience of growing up making things at a farm to a laboratory setting. In her findings, mold from tomato soup had a reaction against the bacteria for Scarlett fever. However, her research was never officially credited by Pfizer, nor was she compensated for her findings. Nurse Johnson was also the first person to host a mass blood-pressure screening away from a doctor’s office or hospital, and soon many others followed. In the March 2013 issue of Minority Nurses, Johnson said, “[Our pastor] was having two or three funerals a week, and we wanted to find out what was killing these people. We decided to do a 575-person blood pressure screening at Cory United Methodist Church.” More information about Mattiedna can be found in her autobiography, Tots Goes to Gbarnga. Both Betty Smith Williams and Mattiedna Johnson dedicated their careers to improving care for their communities and creating a society where Black nurses had equal opportunities.

The objectives of the National Black Nurses Association are to represent and provide a forum for black nurses to advocate for and implement strategies to ensure access to the highest quality of healthcare for persons of color. This mission focuses on education, leadership, research, and unity in the Black community. Neglect, disbelief, and active discrimination in healthcare has made it difficult for the Black community and other minorities to receive proper and fair treatment. Because of this, the NBNA encouraged Black nurses to write and publish, as well as promote, studies in relation to health needs of Black people, and to help make medical advancement that would benefit people of color. They also set guidelines for Black nurses to get the proper education needed, as well as make sure they are being utilized at proper facilities. The association brings together Black nurses of all ages, regions, and educational levels to build a better health system for people of color. They encourage nursing students to continue their studies and use their resources to recruit people of color who have shown interest in nursing.

If you wish to learn more about the National Black Nurses association, visit their website at NBNA.ORG. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram.

Happy Black History Month!


Authored by:

Jackie Gonzalez
Credentialing Specialist
MEDRelief Staffing


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