Hazel Johnson was born in 1927 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, one of seven children. She grew up on her father’s farm in Chester County, near the town of Malvern. When she was twelve, she was inspired to become a nurse by a local white public health nurse. Her application to the West Chester School of Nursing was rejected because she was black. She moved to New York City, and enrolled in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing in 1947.