Hazel Johnson-Brown, Army nurse who was first black female general, dies at 83

August 18, 2011

Hazel Johnson-Brown, 83, the first African American woman to become an Army general and a former chief of the Army Nurse Corps, died Aug. 5 en route to a hospital near her home in Wilmington, Del.

She had Alzheimer’s disease, said her sister, Gloria Smith.

The pioneering military nurse grew up on a Pennsylvania farm and enlisted in the Army in 1955, seven years after President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. She took assignments across the country and in Asia, rising in the ranks as she impressed her superiors with her skill in the operating room.

She made military history in 1979 when she was promoted to brigadier general and, at the same time, to the command of the 7,000 nurses in the Army Nurse Corps. She was the first black woman to hold both posts.

That milestone came almost 40 years after Army Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. had become the first African American man to serve as a general in the U.S. military.


Hazel Johnson-Brown served in Japan before enlisting. In the 1970s, she was director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. (1979 photo by The Washington Post)

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

Gen. Johnson-Brown always wanted to be a nurse, her sister said, but racial prejudice created major obstacles. When she applied to study at the local hospital after high school, she was rejected.

“The director of nursing met us and said to her and myself, ‘We’ve never had a black person in our program, and we never will,’ ” Gen. Johnson-Brown told National Public Radio in 2004.

The Johnson family’s nurse, a white woman, saw the young Hazel’s potential and helped her gain admission to the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she earned her nursing diploma in 1950.

Gen. Johnson-Brown joined the Army to “travel, change my horizons and do many things,” she told The Washington Post in 1979. In civilian life, she realized, she would have had “to start at the bottom with each job.”

As she had hoped, the Army took Gen. Johnson-Brown around the world. She served in Japan soon after enlisting. In the 1960s, she trained surgical nurses on their way to Vietnam.

In the 1970s, she was director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. She was serving as chief nurse of the Army hospital in Seoul when she was promoted to brigadier general.

Her military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal. She was twice named Army nurse of the year.

Hazel Winifred Johnson was born Oct. 10, 1927, in West Chester, Pa. She was one of seven children.

In addition to her degree from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Villanova University in 1959, a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1963 and a doctorate in educational administration from Catholic University in 1978.

After her Army retirement, Gen. Johnson-Brown headed the American Nurses Association’s government relations unit and directed George Mason University’s Center for Health Policy.

Her marriage to David Brown ended in divorce. Besides her sister, survivors include two brothers.

In the interview with National Public Radio, Gen. Johnson-Brown said that she was not a “quiet dissenter” when it came to the slights she suffered as a black woman, in uniform and out.

She recalled going with her mother to a hot dog stand in Philadelphia. Several times the waitress walked past them to serve white customers first. When the waitress finally delivered their order, Gen. Johnson-Brown turned it away.

“Now you eat it,” she told the waitress.

To her mother she said, “Let’s go.”

langere@washpost.com

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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