Nursing trailblazer served Mason, America

One of Mason’s, and the nation’s, foremost trailblazers was honored at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day weekend, Sunday, Nov. 12.

Guests gathered to salute the life of the late General Hazel Johnson-Brown, a career U.S. Army nurse who became a renowned professor at George Mason, where she taught and mentored nursing students.

Johnson-Brown was known for her commanding personality even as a child. Her family called her “a general in the sandbox.”

“We were raised on a farm, in a family of seven kids,” her sister, Gloria Smith, said at the event. “Hazel was a person who believed in learning. That was something we were taught by both of our parents.”

Johnson-Brown knew from an early age she wanted to be a nurse. But in that era, she faced a path filled with obstacles, said associate professor Charlene Douglas. African Americans could not attend the Chester County Hospital School of Nursing. So two local nurses arranged for Johnson-Brown to enroll instead at the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in New York.

“This young woman could not attend the local nursing school in her own county,” said Douglas. “Yet she went on to receive her bachelor’s from Villanova, back in her home state of Pennsylvania, her master’s from Columbia, and her PhD from Catholic University.”

Johnson-Brown enlisted in the Army after nursing school, serving in Japan and South Korea as well as across the United States. In 1979 she became the first African American woman to achieve the rank of general, and was appointed chief of the 7,000-member Army Nurse Corps.

After retiring from the military, in 1989 Johnson-Brown began her second career as an educator at Mason. She taught in the graduate nursing program and founded Mason’s Center for Health Policy, now the Center for Health Policy Research and Ethics.

Bethany Hall-Long, PhD nursing ’93, the current lieutenant governor of Delaware, was among Johnson-Brown’s graduate students.

 “The one thing she was about was standing tall and being a leader,” Hall-Long said. “I am convinced that without her mentoring I would not have served in the Delaware House of Representatives, or the Delaware State Senate.”

Johnson-Brown died in Delaware in 2011 at the age of 83. Her accomplishments are highlighted at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where her brigadier general’s uniform is on display.

The tribute was held at Arlington Cemetery’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Other speakers included Germaine Louis, dean of the College of Health and Human Services; Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James McCall, U.S. Army; and Carolyn A. Taylor, PhD ’14. To honor Johnson-Brown’s legacy, Mason has established the Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown Endowed Scholarship Fund, with a goal of raising $500,000 to benefit deserving CHHS students and establish an endowed chair in nursing.