Dr. Leonora Muhammad

Dr. Leonora Muhammad in her north County office is the chapter president of the Black Nurses Association of Greater St. Louis Thu. Feb. 4, 2021. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

St. Louis group advocates for better health care for Black people.

Mary Eliza Mahoney’s name might not be well-known, but it should be — especially to African American nurses. In1879, she became the first Black person in the United States to earn a nursing degree.

Mahoney, who lived and died in Boston, was the daughter of freed slaves who moved to Boston from North Carolina. She learned about the importance of racial equality at a young age as she attended Phillips School, one of the first integrated schools in the country.

She was admitted in 1878 to The New England Hospital for Women and Children, one of the first nursing schools to operate in the U.S. She was one of four out of 42 students who had enrolled to complete the program.

“The thing about Black folks is, we have to have somebody to look up to and say they’ve done something,” said Dr. Leonora Muhammad, president of the Black Nurses Association of Greater St. Louis.

“If Mary got her nursing degree then we can too. Since then, so many Black nurses have grown from the seed she planted.”

The National Black Nurses Association Inc. organized in 1971, aligns with the imprint Mahoney spearheaded when she paved the way for nursing professionals who look like her.

Today, association membership includes 200,000 Black nurses from the United States, Canada, Eastern Carribean and Africa, with 115 chartered chapters worldwide. The Black Nurses Association of Greater St. Louis is one of them, founded in 1973 and incorporated in 1975.

Muhammad joined the local chapter in 2016 and was named president in January. With her new rank, she’s adamant about increasing membership, remaining visible in the community and being a champion for patients. She also wants the organization to maintain its presence on a national level.

“What’s going on in Washington, D.C., affects not only St. Louis, but it also impacts the state,” Muhammad said. “I want nursing leaders here to represent on a national level so they can obtain information and have that voice to make changes locally.”

Throughout the current coronavirus pandemic, the chapter has persevered. Members have visited homeless shelters throughout the city with educational fact sheets with information aimed to help slow the spread of the virus. They also distributed kits with gloves, masks and hand sanitizer.

“We’ve given out coats, meals and supplies to Gateway 180 Homeless Services and St. Louis Transitional Hope House,” Muhammad said. “We received a donation through [drug manufacturer] Pfizer, where we can also distribute bus passes to people who work at the nursing home so they don’t have to worry about costs, since they have to get COVID tested on a weekly basis.”

In addition to her professional responsibilities, Muhammad is the associate vice president of Patient Care Services at Corizon Health, a correctional health care company aiding in mental, dental and behavorial health services for people who are incarcerated.

Afshanti Hunter, a registered nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, has been with BNA-STL for a year. She said she joined as a way to step out of her comfort zone.

“I decided to join because I find I don’t speak up as often as I should and I wanted to change that,” Hunter said. “I’ve been enjoying my time so far in the organization because it feels like I’m at a family gathering.”

Like Muhammad and many others, Hunter has found herself having to adjust to the pandemic. Her work as a registered nurse on the pulmonary floor looks much different from what it did before.

“When I wear my masks the kids want to pull my mask down to see my face, but I can’t do that,” Hunter said. “So instead I have to come up with innovative ways to make them feel more comfortable like singing them songs or making animal noises.”

Since Mahoney’s time, the scope of the profession has made tremendous strides. Today there are many career choices.

“If you don’t have the funds to go to a four-year school, you can go to community college and still become a registered nurse,” Hunter said.

“Everybody’s like, ‘I wanna be a nurse.’ Well, you gotta go to school to become a nurse, but you have multiple avenues to go through.”

More than a century ago, Mahoney chose nursing as her passion to encourage better quality health care for women and African Americans. She worked as a private nurse until she retired. She died at 80 in 1926, after a three-year battle with breast cancer.

Her legacy lives on.

Learn more about BNA-STL, here: http://www.bna-stlouis.org/.

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