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ACCESS TO CARE
African American Army Nurse Corps Officers
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
As a nation, we recognize the month of February as Black History Month. African American contributions to the nation should be recognized not only as black history, but also as a vital part of American history. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a black scholar who accepted the challenge of writing Black Americans into the nation's history, founded the Association for the Study of African-American Life. Dr. Woodson launched Black History Week in 1926 as an initiative to bring national attention to the contributions of black people throughout American history. The Army Nurse Corps shares in the celebration of Black History Month and honors the legacy of African American Army Nurse Corps Officers.
African American nurses have served throughout our nation's history. During the Civil War, black nurses such as Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave, worked in Union hospitals caring for the sick and wounded. Similarly, Harriet Tubman, when she was not serving as a laundress, cook, scout, spy or guide for the Union Army, also nursed soldiers. Like all Civil War nurses, Tubman did not receive a pension until 30 years after the end of the war. As many as 181 black nurses, both female and male, served in convalescent and U.S. government hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina during the Civil War.
During the Spanish-American War, African American nurses served as contract nurses. Mrs. Namahyoke Curtis, wife of the Superintendent of the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, DC, worked as a contract nurse combating yellow fever and typhoid epidemics that plagued the military during this war. Contracted by the Army, as many as eighty other black women were hired to serve as nurses. These nurses, who were often erroneously considered "immune," handled the worst of the epidemics. Many of these nurses actually served in Santiago, Cuba caring for patients infected during the epidemics. Two of these African American nurses who served overseas died from typhoid fever.
The performance of nurses during the Spanish American War led to the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps on 2 February 1901. However, African Americans continued to fight for acceptance as nurses both in civilian and military venues. At the onset of World War I, administrative barriers existed within the Army Nurse Corps and the American Red Cross that prevented African American nurses from joining the war efforts. With political and public pressure building for acceptance of African American nurses for the war cause, plans were made to permit them to apply to the Army Nurse Corps. It was not until the last months of World War I, during the influenza epidemic of 1918, that the Army and the Red Cross began accepting these nurses who were so willing to serve.
As the nursing shortage became critical, the War Department consented to the authorization of 18 African American nurses into the Nurse Corps. They were assigned to duty in December 1918 at Camp Sherman, Ohio and Camp Grant, Illinois. One of these pioneering women, Aileen Cole Stewart, served at Camp Sherman, Ohio. The difficulties these nurses experienced did not prevent them from serving with great honor. Stewart recalled, "The story of the Negro nurse in World War I is not spectacular. We arrived after the Armistice was signed, which alone was anticlimactic. But each of us contributed quietly and with dignity to the idea that justice demands professional equality for all qualified nurses." Greater than eighteen hundred African-American nurses were certified by the American Red Cross to serve with the Army Nurse Corps during World War I, yet only a handful were allowed to actually serve. None of those who serve received benefits or pensions as they did not serve in wartime.
Although African American nurses were fully qualified and prepared to serve within the military nursing community at the onset of World War II, racial segregation and discrimination lingered. Mabel K. Staupers, the executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, lobbied for a change in the discriminatory policies of the Army Nurse Corps. Recognizing the need for action, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged the army surgeon general to recruit African-American nurses for service in the Army Nurse Corps. While the Army did comply, it did so unwillingly. In 1941, the Army Nurse Corps began accepting African American nurses. Due to a quota system, only a small number, fifty-six, were allowed to join. Slowly, African American nurses pierced the barriers within the military system. By April 1941, forty-eight African American nurses were assigned to Camp Livingston, Louisiana and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Della Raney Jackson, a graduate of Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, became the first Black nurse to be commissioned in the U.S. Army. Jackson reported to duty at Fort Bragg.
By May 1943, 183 African American nurses held commissions in the Army Nurse Corps. This represented approximately 0.6% of the total strength of the Army Nurse Corps. During World War II, African American nurses served in all theaters of the war including Africa, Burma, Australia, and England. At the conclusion of World War II, approximately 600 African American nurses had served. One of these nurses, Margaret E. Bailey, accepted a commission in June 1944. Bailey served in the Army Nurse Corps for 27 years. In 1964, Bailey became the first Black nurse to attain the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Bailey's promotion to full Colonel in 1970 was also a first. After an illustrious career that took her to numerous assignments around the world, Bailey retired in 1971 as a Colonel. In 1972, COL (R) Margaret E. Bailey became a Consultant to the Surgeon General to promote increased participation by minority group members in the Army Nurse Corps recruitment programs.
Immense progress for African American nurses and the Army Nurse Corps marked the end of World War II. Yet, it was not until July 1948 that Executive Order 9981 issued by President Harry S. Truman eliminated blatant discrimination in the armed forces. Executive Order 9981 states, "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
The Korean War was a turning point in the reception of African American nurses in the Army Nurse Corps. The passage of Executive Order 9981 triggered the Army as an organization to eliminate 300 segregated units. African American nurses were finally able to serve in integrated hospitals in Korea, Japan, Hawaii, and in the continental United States. African American nurses cared for wounded frontline soldiers and combat evacuees without the constraints of a segregated environment. They did so with great merit.
Amidst a civil rights battle on the home front, African American nurses upheld their exemplary performance throughout the Vietnam War. African American nurses served in all positions capitalizing on their acceptance within the Corps. In July 1970, First Lieutenant (LT) Diane Lindsay received the Soldier's Medal for heroism during her service in Vietnam. While on duty with the 95th Evacuation Hospital, LT Lindsay assisted in physically restraining a confused patient who was preparing to pull a pin on a grenade within the hospital area. LT Lindsay's actions prevented numerous casualties. LT Lindsay was the first African American nurse to earn this honor.
During the last three decades, the Army Nurse Corps has been privileged to have three African American Corps Chiefs. BG Hazel W. Johnson, the first African American woman to attain the rank of General, served as the 16th Chief of the Army Nurse Corps from September 1979 until August 1983. BG Clara L. Adams-Ender served as the 18th Chief of the Army Nurse Corps from September 1987 until August 1991. BG Bettye H. Simmons served as the 20th Corps Chief of the Army Nurse Corps from 2 December 1995 until 31 January 2000. These trailblazers paved the way for current African American Army Nurse Corps officers.
Recent years have seen the missions of the Army nurse expand. Army nurses serve throughout the world in support of armed conflict and humanitarian endeavors. The nurses discussed in this piece are but a handful of the countless African American nurses who have served for the continuance of freedom and liberty within our borders and abroad. As of September 2002, the Army Nurse Corps has 557 African American nurses, which represents eighteen percent of the entire Corps. These nurses serve with great distinction and honor. African American Army Nurse Corps officers are assigned to all specialties within the Army Nurse Corps. They vigilantly care for the Army's beneficiaries without barrier to race, color, religion, gender or culture. They do so admirably. In recognition of Black History Month, the Army Nurse Corps salutes the African American nurses that have served and those that currently serve as members of the Corps. Army Nurse Corps: Ready, Caring and Proud!
Historical Data located at the Army Nurse Corps Collection, United States Army, Office of Medical History, Office of the Surgeon General, Falls Church, VA