In honor of Nurses Week (May 6-12), this month we’ll learn the amazing story of Estelle Massey Osborne, who fought against racial discrimination in nursing. The Rory Meyers College of Nursing at NYU says of her: “Few Americans helped to change the face of nursing in the 20th-century more than Estelle Massey Osborne.”
Estelle Massey was born on May 3, 1901, to Hall and Bettye Estelle Massey in Palestine, Texas. Her parents were uneducated and worked menial jobs, but they wanted a better life for their children so they saved up and managed to send all 11 of them to college.
Estelle received her teaching certification from Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University). She taught for a while, but after being badly injured in a violent incident at a school where she was teaching, she decided to become a nurse. Estelle joined the first nursing class of St. Louis City Hospital #2 (later Homer G. Phillips Hospital), where she developed a passion for obstetrics. She graduated in 1923 and worked there as head nurse for three years.
In 1926 or 1927 she moved to New York City to teach at the Lincoln School of Nursing and the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she was the first Black instructor. She attended summer sessions at Teachers College of Columbia University. Then, in 1928, she received a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund—the first Black nurse ever awarded one—which enabled her to study full time. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1930, and a master’s in nursing education in 1931, the first Black nurse to do so.
The following year, she married Dr. Bedford N. Riddle, but they later divorced. In 1934 she worked as a researcher for the Rosenwald Fund, studying rural life in the deep South and trying to determine how to better enable people there to access health care services. Later the same year, Estelle became president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses where she created strong relationships with the American Nurses Association (ANA), National League for Nursing, and National Organization for Public Health Nursing. With the bonds she formed, Estelle successfully lobbied to get these organizations to allow Black nurses and worked to improve post-graduation opportunities for Black nurses. By the time she left five years later, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’ membership had increased five-fold to nearly 950 nurses.
In 1940, Estelle returned to St. Louis and the Homer G. Phillips Hospital to become its first Black female director of nursing. When the U.S. entered WWII, she took up the cause, even though the Army and Navy both banned Black nurses. In 1943 she was appointed as a consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service, where she acted as a liaison to nursing schools by recruiting desperately-needed student and graduate nurses. She also used this position to change discriminatory policies at nursing schools and in the military. Within two years, thanks to Estelle’s efforts, 20 more nursing schools admitted Black students, the Cadet Nurse Corps had inducted 2,000 Black members, and the Army and Navy both welcomed Black nurses.
In 1945, Estelle became the first Black instructor at New York University’s Department of Nursing Education. The following year, she received the Mary Mahoney Award from the ANA for her efforts to help Black nurses become integrated within the broader nursing community. In 1947, she married again, this time to Herman Osborne.
In addition to teaching nursing as the first Black faculty member at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, she led many nursing associations, trying to increase Black membership and bridge the divide between white and Black associations. In 1948, she became the first Black member of the ANA board, where she served as a delegate to the International Council of Nurses. Estelle was also a member of the National Urban League, first vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women, and an honorary member of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and the American Academy of Nursing.
In 1954 she became Associate Professor of Nursing Education at the University of Maryland and five years later, the NYU Department of Nursing named Estelle “Nurse of the Year.” In 1966, she left her executive role at the National League for Nursing to retire.
Estelle died on December 12, 1981, at the age of 80. In 1984, the ANA inducted her into their Hall of Fame. Two scholarships bearing her name are given out annually by NYU Meyers and the Nurses Educational Fund.