Betty Williams, Breaking the Color Barrier in Nursing

Profiles in Nursing

Betty Williams, Breaking the Color Barrier in Nursing

A career of firsts

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Betty Williams always knew she would lead an accomplished life. Her parents expected it and gave her much support including always letting her know, “I could be anything I wanted to be.” Not a common message for a young black woman raised before the civil-rights era. But she believed it, and now looking back on a career in nursing that has spanned more than half a century, she is justifiably proud of her accomplishments against formidable odds. Eighty-two at her next birthday, Williams has not slowed down. She is still making a difference.

Taking the Plunge

Although health always was an interest, other than the school nurse who discovered she needed glasses, Williams had little contact with nurses growing up in South Bend, Indiana. Her bachelor’s degree was from Howard University in zoology.

While in college she learned of community health and visiting nursing career opportunities through family and friends, and she has not looked back. She earned her master’s in nursing in 1954 — the first black nurse to wear the cap of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University.

Her first nursing job was with the Cleveland VNA, and after moving to Los Angeles in 1955, she worked for the Department of Health. Soon, Mount St. Mary’s College recruited her to teach public health nursing; later she found she was the first black woman in California to be hired to teach in a baccalaureate program.

Paving the Way

She earned a master’s of science degree in Mental Health/Public Health Nursing from UCLA in 1967, and her doctorate in public health in 1978. After 13 years at “the Mount,” she joined the faculty at UCLA, where she taught for 10 years serving as the first black Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. In 1979 she was named as first black Dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and while there she implemented the school’s first nursing Ph.D. program.

Commuting back and forth to Denver (her architect husband’s practice is in L.A.) could last only so long, and after five years Williams returned to California and taught at Cal State University Long Beach. She retired in 1995. She became the founding Dean of the American University of Health Sciences in 2006, and remained until the first class graduated in 2009.

Champion for Diversity

What makes Betty Williams stand out and what led to her being selected a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing, is that, in addition to her outstanding academic career, she has made a lasting contribution to broadening the diversity of nursing.

She led a steering committee of black nurses in 1968 to organize the Council of Black Nurses, Los Angeles. She is a founding member of the National Black Nurses Association and for 39 years has provided leadership to increase its impact on nursing education, practice and research.  Dr. Williams is the cofounder and first president of the National Coalition of Ethnic Minority Nurse Association, an umbrella group of five national nursing organizations, representing 350,000 ethnic minority nurses.

Her work to ensure the cultural competency of nursing care is unparalleled and so necessary. “As long as we have separate patterns of living, knowing and understanding, problems will remain.” With 87 percent of nurses being Caucasian, compared to less than 65 percent of the nation’s population, there will be a need for Betty Williams’ work as a trailblazer for African-Americans into the nursing profession.  


Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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