Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Black Nurses in the Great War: Fighting for and with the American Military in the Struggle for Civil Rights

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Black Nurses in the Great War: Fighting for and with the American Military in the Struggle for Civil Rights

Article excerpt

"In man's struggle for liberty and truth, which are the outgrowth of social conditions, the burden is always borne by the few."

Adah B. Thoms, R.N., President of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN)

In 1923, Elizabeth Jones, a black nurse, published her views on her profession in The Messenger. In particular, she paid tribute to the black nurse's pioneering spirit in overcoming "difficulties, which were even greater than those of her white sisters." Jones realized that nursing, which, as she noted, Florence Nightingale had described as "God's Work--A Truc Vocation," took on additional and sometimes militant dimensions when engaged in by the "New Negro Woman of today," because black nurses often had "other problems besides that of helping to heal the diseased body." Jones also saw black nursing as crucial to improving face relations, and she encouraged her fellow black nurses to take advantage of their close professional contact with the white man, until "eventually he will be compelled to take us on our merits rather than on our skins. We have to educate him. We have to show him wherein he is wrong." (1)

Reflected in Jones's remarks, which were written in the wake of the Great War, is not only a sense of pride and hope, but also a self-consciousness about the connection between nursing professionalization and civil rights struggles. In her seminal article on "Black Professionals and Race Consciousness," Darlene Clark Hine argued that black professional organizations, such as those developed in the fields of medicine, law, and nursing, "proved to be far more radical, far more capable of nurturing resistance, than anyone could have anticipated." According to Hine, "only the professionals could open the crack in the edifice of white supremacy that the black community later poured through." While recognizing these efforts, Hine focused largely on the era of the Second World War, which she saw as setting the stage for the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. She also encouraged historians to "revisit other foundational moments ... in order to bring into the bright light of history all those whose struggles and resistance made freedom more than a dream." (2)

Pushing Hine's argument about the connections between professional organizations and civil rights even further back, this article explores one of these "foundational moments": the struggles of black nurses in the First World War. It focuses on the fight for equal rights and recognition by the "New Negro Woman" in her battle for inclusion into the United States Armed Forces Nurse Corps, which engaged nurses in a campaign that would raise questions far beyond the issue of gaining acceptance into the medical profession.

Most contemporary historiography interprets the efforts of black nurses to serve in the Great War as valiant but largely futile. In contrast to World War II, black nurses in World War I were never sent abroad--a fact that has led Hine to argue that this wartime experience reinforced the black nurses' sense of marginality. Many cite the conclusion drawn by one of these nurses, Aileen Cole Stewart, who wrote that the "story of the Negro nurse in World War I is not spectacular. We arrived after the Annistice was signed, which alone was anticlimactic." According to historian of nursing Jennifer Telford, many black nurses "waited in vain for a call from the Red Cross." Unlike the account told about World War II, the history of black nurses in World War I is largely used to illustrate professional frustration, racial discrimination, and exclusion. (3)

However, it is possible to tell a different story about the black nurses' involvement in the Great War which challenges this interpretation. I will argue that the combined pressure put on the War Department by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), the black press, and civil rights leaders accomplished an important goal when the Secretary of War, after an intense and very public controversy, authorized black nurses into national service. …

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