2 African-American Trailblazers Who Changed Nursing in Texas

NursingJanuary 06, 2023

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the first African-American and female ranking member to chair the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, amongst her many other achievements.

January 16 marks Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and to honor the holiday, we’re taking a look at notable African-American nurses who made important contributions to nursing in Texas. If you start looking, the nursing field around the nation is full of notable Black trailblazers. Here, we profile two who made their mark in Texas in honor of MLK Day.

Ollie Lee McMillian-Mason (1905-2013). The daughter of a Dallas African-American physician, Nurse McMillian-Mason was the first African-American nurse to work at Parkland Hospital in Dallas (starting in 1937). Early on, she entered the medical field by working at her father’s hospital, McMillan Sanitarium, which specialized in obstetrics and surgery. She went on to study nursing and graduate from Freedman’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, DC (Howard University) in 1929, and then returned to Dallas to serve as chief nurse at her father’s hospital. She went on to study obstetrics further for a year in New York City, returning again to Dallas to become the first Black nurse hired at Parkland Hospital. By 1949, she was working as a public health nurse for the Dallas Health Department with a special focus on premature infants. McMillan-Mason didn’t retire from nursing until age 84 and lived to be 107. Dallas-Fort Worth notably featured her in a Black Living Legends exhibit in 1991. 

Eddie Bernice Johnson (1935-present). Johnson was born and raised in Texas, but she wasn’t able to pursue her college education there because of segregation laws at the time. Instead, she attended St. Mary’s College at the University of Notre Dame, and from there she made a career of firsts. It started with working at the VA Hospital in Dallas, where she went on to become the first female African-American Chief Psychiatric Nurse, and was employed at the hospital for 16 years. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, she entered politics, becoming the first Black woman and nurse elected to the Texas State House (1972) and then the Texas Senate (1986). In another first for African-American women, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be regional director for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. She went on to be elected to Congress, and became the first African-American and female ranking member to chair the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. 

These nurses faced challenges and overcame them to pursue their passions at a time when structural barriers made nursing (and political) careers difficult for African-American women. If you’re feeling inspired to explore a career in nursing, Denver College of Nursing in Houston can help. Click here for more information on our BSN completion program or call us today at (303) 292-0015 and speak to one of our career counselors.