From a young age, Hazel Johnson-­Brown wanted to become an operating nurse and thought joining the U.S. military was the best way to achieve that. She did — and more. In 1979, she made history as the first black woman to become an Army general.

Johnson­-Brown, who died in 2011 at the age of 83, also was the first black woman to head the United States Army Nurse Corps, overseeing 7,000 nurses.

She distinguished herself by training surgical nurses for the Vietnam War, working as director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing, and being named Army nurse of the year twice.

“Race is an incidence of birth,” Johnson­-Brown said at the time of her presidential promotion, according to the Washington Post. “I hope the criterion for selection didn’t include race, but competence.”

Headshot of Hazel Johnson-Brown in Army uniform (Courtesy of Gloria Smith)
Hazel Johnson-Brown (Courtesy of Gloria Smith)

Seven years after President Harry Truman signed an executive order that desegregated the U.S. military, Johnson­-Brown joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1955 as a staff nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

She spent the next dozen or so years working at medical centers in the U.S. and Asia, including as chief nurse of the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, the highest-ranking U.S. military nurse in that country.

Johnson­-Brown sometimes felt extra pressure because it seemed she was the only person of color, said her friend, U.S. Army retired Brigadier General Clara Adams­-Ender. “It wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t always fair,” she said at a November 2017 ceremony honoring Johnson-­Brown at Arlington National Cemetery, a final resting place for many of America’s military heroes. “But when freedom called, Hazel answered.”

Johnson-Brown won several military honors, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit.

From the farm to the hospital

Born in 1927 as one of seven children, Johnson-Brown grew up on a Pennsylvania farm that supplied tomatoes to Campbell’s Soup.

When Johnson-­Brown approached the local hospital to study nursing, the director rejected her for being black, her sister, Gloria Smith, 80, remembered. Johnson­-Brown charged ahead, enrolling in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York City in 1947.

After retiring from the Army in 1983, Johnson-­Brown joined George Mason University as a nursing professor and helped found its Center for Health Policy.

With all of Johnson-Brown’s accomplishments, Smith is most proud that her sister stuck with her dream, defying adversity. “Very few people in life ever know what they want to do,” Smith said. “She knew medicine, and that’s what she wanted and that’s what she went for.”

March is Women’s History Month. Learn about other American women who made their marks in politics and in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

This article was written by freelance writer Lenore T. Adkins.