Hazel Johnson, the first African-American female Army general, was a firebrand at a young age.
When she and her mother went to a hot dog stand in Philadelphia, the waitress walked past them several times to serve white customers first. When the waitress finally delivered their order, Johnson-Brown turned it away.
“Now you eat it,” she told the waitress and left with her mother.
Johnson’s story begins when a family nurse, a white woman, saw young Hazel’s potential and helped her gain admission to the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she earned her nursing diploma in 1950.
Johnson would later enlist in the Army in 1955, seven years after President 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.
In fact, from 1969 to 1973, she helped develop new sterilizing methods for the Army’s Field Hospital Systems as a staff member of the Army Medical Research and Development Command. In 1974, Johnson was promoted to colonel and appointed the director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing.
In 1978, Johnson was sent to South Korea where she was the chief of the department of nursing at the U.S. Army hospital. In May 1979, she returned to Washington D.C. where she was appointed brigadier general and sworn in as the 16th Chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
A lover of education, Johnson 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.
Throughout her career, Johnson said she was not a “quiet dissenter” when it came to the slights she suffered as a black woman. Her military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal and Army Commendation Medal. Johnson was twice named Army Nurse of the Year.
Johnson retired from the U.S. Army in 1984 and during her post-Army career, she served as an advisor to a number of surgeons general.
She passed away in August 2011 leaving behind a legacy of firsts, but most importantly, an outstanding record of excellence in serving her country and helping others.
Sources: The Washington Post, TheBlackPast.org,