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Black Female General’s Legacy Grows at George Mason University

by: Lenore T. Adkins Special to the AFRO
/ (Photo by Cable Risdon) /

The memory of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown already looms large at a Northern Virginia university where she helped found the school’s Center for Health Policy.

Johnson-Brown, a decorated nurse who became the first Black female general before she died in 2011, spent seven years teaching at Fairfax, Va.-based George Mason University, after she retired from the Army. She was known for bringing out the best in her students.

Now, the school wants to augment Johnson-Brown’s legacy.

The university has launched a yearlong campaign to raise $500,000 for the General Hazel Johnson-Brown Initiative, which would cover an endowed nursing chair and a scholarship fund for low-income students, said Laura Walsh, director of development for the university’s College of Health and Human Services.

The endowed nursing chair, the first one for the university, would allow it to recruit high-caliber faculty for the department, Walsh told the AFRO. The school is hoping to provide a minimum of $2,500 per semester to needy nursing students  — tuition for the nursing program is more than $13,000, a figure that doesn’t include lab and uniform fees, Walsh said. The nursing program averages 100 needy students per year, she added.

The school kicked off its fundraising campaign at a Nov. 13 ceremony that celebrated Johnson-Brown in Arlington, Va. at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial.

Unofficial efforts have been underway in the spring and the school has raised a bit more than $100,000 for the campaign so far, Walsh said.

 

After retiring from the Army, Johnson-Brown joined the university in 1989 as a professor in the School of Nursing before retiring in 1996. She had a special place in her heart for students defying the odds to attend nursing school and often mentored them, said Germaine Louis, dean of the College of Health and Human Services.

Grace Smith, Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown’s younger sister, shares memories of her sister Army Gen. (retired) Hazel Johnson-Brown during a ceremony that celebrated Johnson-Brown at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Va. on Nov. 13. (Photo by Cable Risdon)

Johnson-Brown, formerly a nursing professor at George Mason University, also played a pivotal role in founding the university’s Center for Health Policy within the College of Health and Human Services. She was also a special mentor advisor to Delaware Lieutenant Governor Bethany Hall-Long when she was studying for her Ph.D. at George Mason.

Hall-Long said she learned two important lessons from Johnson-Brown: always fight for a seat at the table or you’ll wind up on the menu, and don’t apologize for things you have nothing to be sorry about.

“She was truly a trailblazer, the first African-American female brigadier general but she didn’t let the titles get to her,” said Hall-Long, the campaign’s honorary chair. “She was straight up with you and loving and understanding.”

Born in 1927, Johnson-Brown was one of seven children and grew up on a family farm in Pennsylvania.

From a young age, she always wanted to be a nurse, because she loved blood and guts and patching things up, according to her younger sister, Gloria Smith. Johnson-Brown was so determined to attend nursing school that she worked as a housekeeper for a White family so she’d have enough money to go.

Johnson-Brown approached the local Chester County Hospital in Pennsylvania to enroll in its nursing program, but they told her they never had and never would accept Black women, her sister recalled.

Undeterred, Johnson-Brown got into and enrolled in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York in 1947 — she would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Pennsylvania-based Villanova University in 1959, a master’s degree from New York City-based Columbia University in 1973 and a Ph.D. from the Washington, D.C.-based Catholic University of America School of Education in 1978.

She graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of nursing in 1950 and worked as a beginning level staff nurse in its emergency room.

From there, she joined the Army Nurse Corp in 1955 as a staff nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. — seven years after President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces.

She spent the next dozen years or so holding military nursing positions at multiple medical centers, including 8169 Hospital in Japan where she was a staff nurse and Valley Forge Medical Center where she was a supervisor.

Johnson-Brown reached the highest point of her military career in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter appointed her chief of the Army Nurse Corps, with the rank brigadier general.

Not only was Johnson-Brown the first Black woman general in the entire military, but she was also the third woman general in the Army and the first Army Nurse Corps chief with a Ph.D.

Mementos from her career in the armed forces are on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Her military honors include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal.

“I think it’s wonderful what she did and what she became, because she had a straight path,” Smith told the AFRO. “She didn’t look over here, look over there, and go here or go there. She went straightforward because she wanted to be a nurse from the time she was a little kid. And she did it.”






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