President's Blog

Tribute to a trailblazer: Hazel Johnson-Brown

Prof. Hazel Johnson-Brown was a pioneer in life, in the U.S. Army and at George Mason University. Her uniform, as the first Black woman to reach the rank of general, is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Mason is embarking on a year-long campaign to raise funds to honor Johnson-Brown.

Johnson-Brown’s greatest legacy, however, is the hundreds of students and colleagues she inspired and mentored, including her former colleague Charlene Douglas (left), associate professor in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services.

Prof. Douglas paid tribute to Johnson-Brown on Sunday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery as part of CHHS’s “Tribute to a Trailblazer” event.

Here’s what Prof. Douglas had to say:

General Johnson-Brown’s journeys in nursing began as a child in Chester County (Pa.). According to her sister Gloria, she loved “patching up stuff.” The family lived on a farm and had visiting nurses, Ms. Flynn and Ms. Fitz. The nurses knew that African Americans could not attend the Chester County Hospital School of Nursing even though the Johnson family had roots as Free People of Color for over 150 years and ancestor Isaac Woodburn was drafted into the Union Army in 1863.

But Ms. Flynn and Ms. Fitz “knew a guy who knew a guy.” They told Hazel to pack. She was going to enroll in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing.

General Johnson-Brown went on to receive her Bachelor’s from Villanova, back in her home state of Pennsylvania, her Master’s from Columbia and her Ph.D. from Catholic University.

Having been denied admission to her local hospital School of Nursing, General Johnson-Brown later sat on the Board of Trustees at Villanova and was admitted as a Fellow to the American Academy of Nursing.

The students who have studied under General Johnson-Brown are in places far and wide – and high. What impresses me most is not what they are doing, but how they always reference her:

“I took her class.”
“She was on my committee.”
“She got me an internship.”

The mention of the General Johnson-Brown’s name causes a pivot in the conversation into the shared ownership of time with her. We never stop remembering the experience or appreciating what our time with her meant to our subsequent careers.

I owe my academic career to the General.

During my White House Fellow year, I was having some challenges and remembered her from a convention I attended. I reached out and she invited me to lunch – which lasted for three hours. She arranged an interview, negotiated rank, and I have been here for 25 years.

I had the privilege of serving as the chair of the Faculty Senate at George Mason University for three years. It was a first for a number of my demographic characteristics.

But purposefully, thinking of Hazel, I always said that I was the first nurse to chair the Faculty Senate. And I basked in the thought that Hazel would have been proud of me.

Thank you.