Honoring Health Care Pioneers During Black History Month

Adah Belle Samuel Thoms

During Black History Month, NAHC Report will be profiling various African-Americans who have made great contributions to American health care.

Born in 1870 in Virginia, Adah Belle Samuel Thoms moved to New York City in the 1890s to study speech and elocution before studying nursing at the Women’s Infirmary and School of Therapeutic Massage. In 1900, Ms. Thoms graduated as the only Black woman in a class of 30. Thoms continued her nursing education at Lincoln Hospital and Home School of Nursing, a school for Black women, and graduated in 1905. Impressively, Ms. Thomas was named acting director of Lincoln in 1906 and served in that position until 1923, though she never held the title of director due to racist policies and attitudes of the time. However, Ms. Thoms did become the president of the Lincoln Hospital Alumnae Association.

While acting director at Lincoln and working with Black nursing legends Mary Mahoney and Martha Franklin, Ms. Thoms organized and hosted a meeting that, in 1908, turned into the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Originally composed of 52 Black nurses, NACGN fought for the full integration of Black women into the profession of nursing, advocating for equality in education, pay, and employment opportunities. Ms. Thoms became Treasurer of the NACGN and, eventually, president of the organization.

After the United States entered World War I, Ms. Thoms urged the American Red Cross to admit Black nurses into their ranks and fought more generally for the rights of Black women to serve in the U.S. military. Her efforts eventually helped lead to the United States Army Nurse Corps and for her efforts Ms. Thoms was introduced to President Warren G. Harding.

This fight Ms. Thoms began to integrate nursing was eventually won and the NAGCN was disbanded in 1950 after the American Nurses Association and the U.S. Armed Forces integrated the Black nurses.

In honor of her massive contributions to nursing and racial integration, Ms. Thoms became the first recipient of the NACGN’s Mary Mahoney Award.

Not one to ever give up the fight, Ms. Thoms continued her work until her death in New York City in 1943. Today, she is still remembered as one of the great leaders of the nursing profession and for racial justice in health care and the United States.

For her tireless work on behalf of nursing and Black nurses, Ms. Thoms was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame when it was established in 1976.

All of us at NAHC admire the work and legacy of Ms. Thoms and urge you to keep her in mind during Black History Month, when we honor the work of African-Americans who have overcome so much to make invaluable contributions to our society.