In these difficult times we wish to recognize the heroics of the health-care professionals who are saving lives every day by honoring those of the past. Some of those may have been suffragists. All were brave.
Martha Minerva Franklin, 1870 – 1968
When we think of heroic, trail blazing nurses we think almost immediately of Florence Nightingale, who introduced methods of hygiene and strove to elevate the stature of nurses from that of menial servants to educated professionals. But there were many who followed in her footsteps, while forging paths of their own making, solving problems of their own time.
Martha Minerva Franklin was born October 29, 1870 to a black working class family in New Milford, Connecticut. She graduated from public high school in 1890 and in 1895 enrolled in the Woman’s Hospital Training School of Philadelphia to study nursing, only the second black to attend. In 1897 she was the only black woman in her graduating class.
By the end of the nineteenth century the medical field was experiencing what would be profound and lasting changes. A proliferation of new hospitals offering advanced clinical and scientific techniques created the demand for skilled nurses; new schools opened, including one at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and Bellevue Hospital in New York City. But most nursing schools would not accept black women, or had strict racial quotas. Even when accepted, black nurses were often not allowed to treat white patients. After graduation they found themselves limited to working in poor, disease-ridden ghettos deep within crowded cities.
Martha soon discovered the unfortunate discrimination of the medical profession against black nurses. There were few jobs available for them in hospitals or public health clinics, so they were limited to private duty nursing where they were often treated like servants. They were prohibited from joining national organizations that would enable them to keep abreast of new developments and seek leadership positions in the field.
Martha decided the only path to success for black nurses was to establish a national organization of their own. In 1908 she founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), with twenty-six charter members. To preserve its professional integrity full membership was limited to registered nurses who had graduated from a hospital-affiliated school.
Over the next thirty years Martha worked tirelessly with NACGN to overcome racial bias, end discrimination in pay and benefits, and assist members with placement in supervisory positions. Martha saw the organization taken over by other qualified leaders who worked to break down racial bias. They also campaigned to allow black nurses to serve in the military. In 1948 the American Nurses Association finally voted to permit black nurses to become members, and in 1951, NACGN took the unprecedented move of voting to disband.
Martha Minerva Franklin saw the nursing profession move from a fledging group of little more than untrained servants to a highly educated and respected profession of men and women of all races upon which the entire medical community depends. She did not simply seek equality for the black nurse – she insisted upon it, because she knew such equality was necessary to both personal and professional survival. She died on September 26, 1968, after devoting many years of her life to an organization whose ultimate success led to its demise. In 1976 she was posthumously admitted to the Nursing Hall of Fame.