In the mid-1800’s, when the Civil War emerged, Black-only infantries voluntarily fought for their freedom. Three well-known Black women in history took part in helping those men in their recovery and in their missions, with no proper compensation or recognition: Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, abolitionists and political activists, and Suzie King Taylor, the first African-American army nurse. It wasn’t until the 1950’s, when President Truman banned segregation in the military, that Hazel W. Johnson-Brown rose in the ranks, becoming the first African-American chief in the Nurse Army Corp and general of the US Army. Though many Black people suffered due to lack of compensation or recognition, they have paved the way for future generations.
Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth are mentioned in our American history books when discussing slavery. Tubman is mostly known for helping slaves in the mid-1800s escape through what we now know as the Underground Railroad, while Truth is known for her activism in civil and women’s rights. When the Civil War broke out in 1862, Tubman saw a Union victory as a step closer to the abolition of slavery. Truth helped recruit Black men into the Union Army. Though Sojourner Truth was a nurse during her enslavement, she did not partake as one during the Civil War. Harriet Tubman became a laundress for the Secord Carolina Volunteers, helping as a nurse for injured soldiers. A year later, she became head of an espionage and scout network for the Union Army, finding out plans and strategies from the enemy side. It took three decades for the government to recognize her military contributions as a spy and a nurse. Both women practiced nursing to a degree, but their primary roles in the Civil War made impacts that helped reach a Union victory.
Due to Tubman and Truth’s work outside of nursing, the title of first African-American army nurse was bestowed on Suzie King Taylor. Suzie King Taylor was born into slavery in 1848 and escaped in 1862 during the middle of the Civil War. Taylor received underground schooling when she was living with her grandmother, so when she was freed, she became the first African-American teacher at a freedman’s school in Georgia. She later moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, where she worked as a laundress in the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Camp Saxton—later known as the 33rd US Colored Troops. Her job as a laundress was to aid the wounded and sick soldiers, but she taught the soldiers on her off time. Even though Suzie King Taylor worked as an army nurse for about four years, she was never paid for her service. After the Civil War and during the Reconstruction Era, Taylor took part in organizing Corp 67 of the Women’s Relief Corp, an organization for providing post-war relief to Union veterans. Suzie King Taylor passed in October of 1912, but more about her time in the Union Army can be read in her memoir “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp.” The Civil War was fought due to the South’s fear of losing slave labor, and it ended with the Union victory and establishing civil rights to freed slaves. This became a step forward for equality in America and has allowed more Black people, such as Hazel W. Johnson-Brown, to have better opportunities.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown was born in October of 1927 in Pennsylvania. She knew since childhood that she wanted to be a nurse, but once the time came for her to apply to nursing school, she was denied from West Chester School of Nursing because she was Black. In 1947, she ended up enrolling at the Harlem Hospital school of Nursing in New York City. She worked at the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia in 1953 and enlisted in the army in 1955. At this point, President Truman banned segregation in the Military. She worked on the female medical-surgical ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, then in the obstetrical unit at the 8169th Hospital in Camp Zama, Japan, and trained nurses for Vietnam before her two-year term was finished. In 1979, Johnson-Brown was nominated by the Army to become the 16th chief of the Army Nurse Corps and promoted to brigadier general of the US Army, making her the first ever African-American woman to achieve this rank. She was quoted saying, “Race is an incidence of birth. I hope the criterion for selection didn’t include race but competence.”
Wrapping up Black History Month and going into Women’s History Month, it is important to reflect on the past and make civil rights developments for a better future. Though the Civil Rights Movement today is not the same as when Tubman, Truth and Taylor were fighting for their freedom, today’s minorities still face hardships due to discrimination. The fervor and commitment exhibited by these four women in history are examples to follow. To emphasize Johnson-Brown’s point, all people of color and other minorities deserve equal opportunities based off their level of skills, credentials, and criteria, not by the color of their skin, their gender identity, or their sexuality.