A Start to Healing

One hundred years ago, the flu pandemic had an unexpected side effect: a civil rights breakthrough for black nurses. In an upcoming book, a UMD professor will tell their stories.
by Sala Levin '10 | Photo via Army.mil

In October 1918, as influenza was tearing across the globe—killing at least 50 million before its brutal reign ended—three young American Red Cross nurses arrived at a makeshift camp near Charleston, W.Va., to take care of stricken miners. Inside a high school-turned-hospital, the scene was stomach-turning. Every one of the patients was lying lifeless on his cot, a baggage tag hanging from each right wrist. The nurses were too late. “I’ll bet you young nurses had your hearts set on going overseas, wearing romantic Red Cross uniforms, to nurse our soldiers, didn’t you?” an officer later taunted them.

The nurses—Aileen Cole, Clara Rollins and Susie Boulding—had long wanted to be Red Cross nurses, to contribute to the war effort. But as black women, they’d been rejected by an organization and military that didn’t want them. It was only as the pandemic raged, and soldiers and other patients languished in military hospitals and other encampments—and as doctors and nurses themselves succumbed to the virus—that the Red Cross and Army begrudgingly accepted them.

Cole, Rollins and Boulding were among the 18 women who served as the first black nurses in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during and immediately following World War I, when a public health crisis unexpectedly advanced the cause of civil rights.

The unsung stories of these and other Red Cross nurses are the foundation of “Finding New Fronts: How World War I Service Shaped a Generation of U.S. Nurses,” a forthcoming book by Marian Moser Jones (left), associate professor of family science, as well as an April article in the American Journal of Public Health marking the centennial of the nurses’ service.

Already the author of a book on the history of the Red Cross, Jones was a clear choice to solve a mystery that fell into the lap of some National Institutes of Health archivists. They’d been contacted by a doctor from Potomac, Md., who had discovered what looked like a World War I nurse’s diary among his late wife’s belongings. Baffled, the archivists turned to Jones—who had done a post-doc at NIH—to figure out who the diarist was.

That quest turned into a 3,000-mile road trip, as she decided to focus her next book on World War I nurses. Going from state to state, archive to archive, driving as far west as North Dakota, Jones collected letters and diaries from nurses who served in the Great War—and realized most of them were from white women.

Jones knew then that any book about World War I nurses would have to include the banning of black nurses. “It wasn’t just incidental,” she says.

Nine of the black nurses who integrated the U.S. Army Nurse Corps were sent to Camp Sherman in Ohio during the height of the flu pandemic. 

Black women in America were hardly new to nursing when World War I broke out. As slaves, black women breastfed their owners’ babies and tended to the sick, both white and black. During the Civil War, records indicate that 181 black nurses—male and female—served at 11 hospitals in three states. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were both nurses who treated soldiers.

Early nursing schools created quota systems that limited admission for minority students. Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children, incorporated in 1863, restricted entry to one black woman and one Jewish woman annually.

By the early 20th century, black hospitals and nursing schools had started to appear, partly in response to the educational segregation that followed the Supreme Court’s 1896 ruling on Plessy v. Ferguson. Spelman College founded the country’s first black nursing program in 1886, and Howard University followed suit by 1893, as did other schools in following decades. The 1910 census counted 3,210 black nurses, skyrocketing from 201 in 1900. Of those, 3,010 were women.

Still, despite meeting every imaginable standard of professional qualification, these nurses couldn’t overcome the prevailing law of the land: racial discrimination. In 1916, the American Nurses Association stipulated that applicants have pre-existing membership in a state chapter—16 of which (plus Washington, D.C.) barred black nurses. In 1911, the Red Cross—essentially the recruiting arm of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps—had voted to exclude black nurses.

Many black Americans hoped that World War I would change the racial calculus in the country: Showing their loyalty to their country by supporting the war effort could finally convince white Americans that they were equally worthy citizens. “Racially, this war spells for us the most glorious word in the vocabulary of freedom—opportunity,” said Dr. C.V. Roman, a professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

While black doctors, dentists and soldiers did join the military, women struggled to find a place in the war effort. Though the Red Cross officially lifted its ban on black nurses in 1917, black women still found themselves facing an unspoken barricade. “The Red Cross would hold recruitment fairs in major cities—they’d say, ‘We need nurses desperately,’ and then their applications would be taken by the Red Cross and rejected, or held and go nowhere,” says Jones (pictured at top, right). Although Red Cross leaders tried to place some of these nurses at Army camps, Army nursing leaders rebuffed their efforts.

Starting in January 1918, the flu pandemic sprinted across the world, eventually sickening some 500 million—a third of the world’s population. Chicago and other cities closed theaters, movie houses and other public places in an attempt to stem the disease’s spread. In Philadelphia, some corpses waited more than a week to be buried, and a trolley car manufacturer donated 200 packing crates to be used as coffins. Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by approximately 12 years.

Amid the carnage, black nurses found a chance to become essential. With 20 to 40 percent of military personnel sickened, camps and hospitals were overrun. In 1918, Tuskegee Institute President Robert Moton said that the Red Cross’s refusal to enroll black nurses represented an “indifference on the part of colored people which ought not to be when the country needs every ounce of effort along every available line.”

In September 2001, Jones was in her lower Manhattan office, working for a 20-person news outlet called GenomeWeb. When the World Trade Center was struck, “I was one of those people who ran across the Brooklyn Bridge to escape,” she says. On the other side, Red Cross workers tended to the stunned evacuees. Jones’ mind flashed to memories of the Red Cross in her life—swim lessons, first aid classes. The Red Cross seemed omnipresent—but why?

Growing up in St. Louis, Jones had been encouraged to pursue science or health care as a doctor. “The idea of nursing was disfavored among my mentors,” she says. “It was like, if you’re smart and interested in health science, go become a doctor.”

During her time as a health and science reporter, Jones “started to think about all of the norms of the health care system and public health” and their origins. “A lot of that history is taught from the perspectives of doctors or health systems, and nurses are sort of incidental.” As a feminist, that rankled her. “If you want to talk about the history of health sciences or health in the military, you have to look at nursing, not just medicine.”

Jones left journalism to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia, where she dived into the history and sociology of public health. Her focus on the history of nursing was the product of “a passion to bring back the voices of people who haven’t been heard,” she says. “In history, there’s been either forgetting or burying of histories of women and people of color and the roles they played in very important events from wars and disasters to simply building a country or city.”

When Jones was approached in 2013 with what she eventually discovered to be the diary of World War I nurse Minnie Victoria Strobel, she found herself wondering more about the lives of individual nurses.

She enlisted the help of Jean Shulman, a longtime volunteer nurse historian for the Red Cross, in tracking down nurses’ letters and diaries. Shulman had become adept at ferreting out long-hidden relatives and stories through queries from the public like, “We found a pin in the attic (and) we think my grandma went to France,” she says. “Through the years we’ve been able to find endless stories of World War I nurses, and I very early on became interested in some of the black nurses.”

With the help of research assistant Matilda Saines ’19, Jones scoured the scant photos and records, recognizing their role in the non-cinematic version of the civil rights story, in which “you had generations of people fighting without seeming to advance very much, but with little advances, like these 18 black women.”

Patients’ beds were isolated by curtains at a New Haven, Conn., hospital during the pandemic of 1918–19.Aileen Cole was shaken by her experience in that high school gym. “It was gruesome to see a whole unit of dead patients, each one lying on an army cot and covered with a blanket as if asleep,” she wrote in her diary.

But she and the other nurses weren’t deterred. On Nov. 13, 1918, Cole received a letter from Clara D. Noyes, director of field nursing for the Red Cross. She and 17 others had been assigned to the Army Nurse Corps and called to report on Dec. 1, half to Camp Sherman in Ohio and half to Camp Grant in Illinois.

The nurses lived in “separate but equal” housing, sharing a living room, dining room and kitchen. A black maid cooked and served their meals.

Despite the segregated living—and being excluded from social events for white nurses and doctors—records from the nurses and their supervisors recall a surprisingly smooth reception, largely free of overt racial animus. “Clara A. Rollins I hope I shall never forget, because of her splendidly cooperative spirit shown throughout her service at Sherman,” wrote Mary Roberts, chief nurse of Camp Sherman. “I recall one amusing instance which occurred when a change of personnel in the ward seemed logical and imminent. A request, signed by every man in the ward, was sent to my office begging that Miss Rollins be not taken from them.”

The nurses, too, recalled warm relationships with soldiers and medical staff. “There apparently was no bias or discrimination in our nursing assignments at the base hospital,” wrote Cole. “We were liked, accepted, and respected by officers and men.”

Still, for the 18 women, the moment was at once a breakthrough and a bitter reminder of their country’s resistance to change.

“The story of the Negro woman in World War I is not spectacular,” wrote Cole. “We arrived after the Armistice was signed, which alone was anticlimactic. We had no opportunity for ‘service above and beyond the call of duty.’ But each one of us, in the course of our professional relationships, did contribute quietly and with dignity to the idea that justice demands professional equality for all qualified nurses.” TERP


Owen Lee

Love this story. Thanks for doing the research and bringing back the darker chapter in our US history. Those were brave nurses in those days and they served the patients and the country with honor.

Jane Villanueva

Thank you for sharing this very important story with us! It is crucial we not forget these parts of our history.

Kpabai Suku-Tamba

Thanks for sharing this cutting edge research.Look forward to the forthcoming Book. As a nurse I feel blessed to be informed of such vital part of our History and I am deeply grateful that my Daughter Matilda Saines was privileged to be included.

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