One of Mason’s, and the nation’s, foremost trailblazers was honored at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day weekend, Sunday, November 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.
Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1928, 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,” said her sister, Gloria Smith, at the event. “Hazel was a person who believed in learning. That was something we were taught by both of our parents, even though our mother never went to school, and didn’t know how to write, until our older sister taught her how.”
Johnson-Brown knew from an early age she wanted to be a nurse. But in that era, she faced a path filled with obstacles, observed Charlene Douglas, PhD, an assistant dean for the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS). African Americans could not attend the Chester County Hospital School of Nursing. So two local nurses, friends of the family, 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, where her family had lived as free people of color for over 150 years,” said Douglas. “Yet she went on to receive her bachelors from Villanova, back in her home state of Pennsylvania, her masters 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 U.S. 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.
“[During my years in the PhD program] I got to know Hazel personally,” Hall-Long said. “The one thing she was about was standing tall and being a leader. She was truly a trailblazer—the first African American female brigadier general. But she didn’t let the title get to her—she was straight up with you, and loving and understanding.”
“She made an impression on my career. 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.
“We are so pleased to honor this historic figure,” said Edna Kane-Williams, senior vice president of AARP, which sponsored the event. “Gen. Johnson-Brown’s life embodied all that AARP is about, which is to serve others. It is part of our duty to make sure that we recognize and keep these firsts alive.”
The tribute was held at Arlington Cemetery’s Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Other speakers included CHHS dean Germaine Louis, PhD, Lt. General (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.
One of Johnson-Brown’s longtime colleagues, Brigadier General (Ret.) Clara Adams-Ender, also a former chief of the Army Nurse Corps, saluted their friendship and shared this memory: “There is an old song that we in the military sing for warriors who have served well. It applies to Hazel: When she was needed, she was there. When the call went out for freedom, she was there. It wasn’t always easy, and it wasn’t always fair, but when freedom called, Hazel answered, she was there.”