Mabel Keaton Staupers was an early leader in the American nursing profession as well as a businesswoman and a civil rights activist. Staupers played a leading role in overcoming racial segregation within the United States military and civilian nursing institutions.
Born in Barbados, West Indies in 1890, Staupers emigrated with her parents to Harlem, New York in 1903. She completed her primary and secondary education in New York City and in 1914 she was admitted to Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C. Upon graduating with honors three years later, Staupers began working as a private service nurse. In 1920 Staupers and two African American physicians, Louis T. Wright and James Wilson, founded the Booker T. Washington Sanitarium in Harlem, treating African Americans suffering from tuberculosis.
In 1922, Staupers conducted a detailed investigation into Harlem’s health care needs. The report identified serious shortcomings in the city’s treatment of people of color suffering from tuberculosis. In response, New York founded the Harlem Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association and appointed Staupers as executive secretary. Mabel Staupers spent the next 12 years ensuring that Harlem’s residents suffering from tuberculosis were allotted adequate resources for dealing with the disease.
In 1934, Staupers was named executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), a post she retained until 1946. Staupers advocated for black nurses by organizing local and state nursing associations, advising black nurses and campaigning to integrate the Armed Forces Nurse Corps. Although that integration had officially occurred in 1941, a rigid system of quotas denied African American nurses full integration. Backed by overwhelming public support including an endorsement from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and following a nationwide nursing shortage during World War II, Staupers' campaign for full integration of the U.S. Armed Forces Nurse Corps finally succeeded in 1945.
In 1948, Staupers turned her attention to the American Nurses Association (ANA), the largest organization of professional nurses in the United States. Pressured by Staupers and other prominent black nurses, the ANA finally integrated its ranks in 1949. Shortly after this monumental breakthrough, Staupers was elected president of the NACGN. In 1950, however, Staupers led the disbanding of the NACGN, feeling that the organization had completed its mission as black nurses now had access to all nursing organizations.
For her role as an advocate for racial equality and for outstanding achievement Staupers received the Springarn Medal in 1951. Ten years later she would publish her own history of the NACGN. In 1967, New York Mayor John V. Lindsay presented Staupers with a citation of appreciation, reading, “To an immigrant who came to the United States and by Individual Effort through Education and Personal Achievement has become an Outstanding American Leader and Distinguished Citizen of America.” Staupers moved to Washington D.C. in 1970 where she lived until her death on September 30, 1989.
Mabel Keaton Staupers, No Time For Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1961); Darlene Clark Hines, Black Women in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); “Mabel Staupers, 99, Leader for Nurses, Dies,” The New York Times (October 6, 1989).
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