History's People: Hazel Johnson-Brown, First Female Black General

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
June 28, 2012

As we approach the Fourth of July, between the fireworks, barbecues, and parades, stop for a moment to remember Hazel Johnson-Brown.  On June 14th, 33 years ago on Flag Day in 1979, she became the first black woman general in the entire history of the U.S. military. Brown, who passed away in 2011, was born and raised right here in Chester County. It's safe to say her home and her childhood shaped her life and values.

Hazel Johnson was born in West Chester in 1927 to Clarence L. and Garnett Johnson but spent most of her childhood growing up in Malvern. Her parents had a farm on Valley Hill Road, where they raised a variety of livestock and grew fruits and vegetables. They lived off the land and also supplied tomatoes to the Campbell Soup Company.

One of seven siblings, Hazel learned the value of hard work on the farm at an early age. She later recalled, "my dad had seven kids - he didn't have to hire anybody."  Her father instilled all of the Johnson siblings with discipline and responsibility that stuck with her throughout her life.

Even at that young age, and probably because of her loving yet strict parents, she learned to appreciate order and organization.  "I was always a planner," she remarked, "I was always one that wanted to get things taken care of and in order." These attributes served her well later in life. 

Hazel excelled at academics, as a student at East Whiteland Elementary School and later Tredyffrin-Easttown Junior/Senior High School (today's Conestoga).

Like most success stories, it was the influence of one person in particular that inspired Hazel.  As her sister Gloria Smith, currently a resident of Wilmington, Delaware recalls, the kids were periodically visited by nurse Elizabeth Fritz who checked up on them.  Hazel admired "Miss Fritz" greatly and aspired to become a nurse herself one day.

Despite her academic success and resolve, the obstacles for an ambitious young African-American woman in the 1940s were formidable.  As her sister Gloria conveys, when Hazel approached the Chester County Hospital to enter their nursing program, she was abruptly told that they "never have and never will" allow black women into the program.  

Undeterred, Hazel approached Miss Fritz with her dilemma. After a phone call from the well-connected nurse to a friend, she was accepted to Harlem Hospital's School of Nursing program in New York. Hazel enrolled in 1947 and graduated in 1950.

Starting as a beginning level staff nurse in Harlem Hospital's emergency ward, Hazel quickly rose up the ranks. In 1955, she entered the Army Nurse Corp as a staff nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center   in Washington, D.C.  Over the next twelve years, she held a variety of positions at various medical centers, including the 8169 Hospital in Japan and Valley Forge General Hospital.

Throughout her career, Hazel continued to excel academically.  She earned her B.S. in 1959 from Villanova, M.S. in 1963 from Columbia University, and Ph.D. in 1978 from Catholic University. She taught health care and health administration at such august institutions as the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, and George Mason University.

Shortly before receiving her Ph.D., she was appointed director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. While her career rose and influence spread, then as a colonel, she grabbed the attention of the popular press. In 1977, the magazine Ebony called her "one of the real 'heavies' in her field" and anticipated her future ascension to the "first black woman general."

A key to Hazel's success was her well-rounded personality and intellect. "She treated everyone the same" and "always was a people person," her sister Gloria Smith remarks. 

 And throughout her career, destiny appeared to play a part as well. In the 1960s, while at Valley Forge General Hospital, Hazel was slated to go to Vietnam but became very ill and stayed home. The unit she would have gone with was attacked shortly after arriving in Vietnam. The nurse who took her place was killed in the attack along with numerous others killed or wounded in the incident.

Her career reached its pinnacle in 1979, when President Carter nominated her as Chief, Army Nurse Corps, and as such, promoted her to the rank of Brigadier General. She was confirmed later that year by the Senate and officially took her post on September 1, 1979.  Not only was she the first black woman general, but she was only the third female general in the Army and the first Army Nurse Corps Chief with an earned Ph.D.  She retired in 1983 from the post, but continued to be active as an academic leader in the nursing field through the 1980s and 1990s. She married David Brown in 1981 and they later divorced.

When she passed away in August 2011, General Johnson-Brown received a fitting tribute at home arranged by DeBaptiste Funeral Home in West Chester. Another service was held at her church, Saint Clare, in Clifton, Virginia.  Her funeral was held in Arlington National Cemetery, where she was interred with a ceremony fitting her accomplished career.  

When discussing her story with Chester County Hospital officials, they stated that "General Hazel Johnson-Brown demonstrated individual perseverance to rise above the many barriers facing African American women and men in the last century. We all have much to learn from her life. It is also important to be reminded of how far our society has advanced in the past 70 years, and the work that still lies before us."

As a leading figure in her field and trailblazer for future black women leaders, General Hazel Johnson-Brown will forever be remembered in the annals of American military history.  As Army Nurse Corps Historian Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell explains, "Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown was remarkable in that she commanded during a transitional period for the Army Nurse Corps and led with dignity and style; she was considered a great leader of the Corps and was well respected and loved."

If you love this story of Hazel Johnson-Brown as much as I do - see her for yourself at the American Visionary Project, which produced a series of video interviews with this illustrious Chester Countian who contributed so much to this great nation of ours: http://www.visionaryproject.org/johnsonbrownhazel/

Caption (below): Hazel Johnson-Brown's promotion to colonel. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.