Racial Disparities Among African American Nurses during World War II
The purpose of this research paper is to discover why there were such racial and gender disparities among African American nurses during World War II. For example, why did the United States Army allow the recruitment of only 330 black nurses to attend to the nearly one million black soldiers? The Army chose not to enlist around the 25000 black nurses who also had the same necessary skills as white nurses, and could have greatly benefited the wounded and dying soldiers of any race. “Even as the United States entered World War II to protect freedom and democracy, discrimination against its racial minorities continued as the nation’s greatest dilemma.” Suffice it to say that the United States Government chose not to intervene in some decisions in the military branches. This biased ideal was evident not only within the Army, but the Navy, too. “Black women did not serve in the Navy Nurse Corps until late in World War II. In spite of the fact that the Navy stated that it would implement and maintain a non-discrimination program in the Navy Nurse Corps, only four black females were commissioned for service.” Yet, the military chose to forfeit not only the health, but the very lives of black and white soldiers alike, so as to keep racism and gender bias against these nurses alive.
Racial disparity among black nurses is not a rare phenomenon within the military, although throughout history, black women did have a periodic and often unofficial role in military, usually as nurses. Harriet Tubman and Susan King Taylor both served as volunteer nurses for the United States Army during the Civil War. But it wasn’t until World War II that they had their first opportunity to officially aid their country. This occurred after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill to create the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAC), which allowed women of all races to serve. Black women were also given the opportunity to advance to the rank of female officer. However, less than 3000 black women were admitted to serve as WACs in World War II, and could only serve overseas if a commander requested them in writing. Still, the army showed a striking variance between the 3000 black WOC’s, and the 330 black nurses. Might the reason be that the army thought it was much easier to segregate WOC’s, who were divided into units than black nurses, who may have been more difficult to regulate, as they might be compelled to render aid (singularly and not as a unit) to a jumbled mass of soldiers of any color during an emergency? In her book, Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps, Charissa Threat point out that “In the early years war years, concerns about race mixing along with outright racism influenced military nursing policies just as they had shaped similar policies for the rest of the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Although this logic of army segregation seems absurd, it certainly began to fail within the WOC units by World War II. Take for instance Charity Adams Earley, who became the first black female officer WAC. She believed she and her unit members were punished by the Red Cross Director because she was dating a white Red Cross staff member in London. In retaliation, the director leased a separate hotel for Earley and her subordinates. “We realize that your colored girls would be happier if they had a hotel all to themselves so we have leased a hotel from the British government, and we are in the process of renovating and furnishing it now.” After this comment, Earley did not choose to remain passive, and so she and her subordinates refused to stay in the segregated hotel, but not by being insubordinate. Rather, she and her unit chose to either take only day trips into London, stay with agreeable British families, or pay for their own hotels if they had to stay overnight. Although the Red Cross tried to segregate them in an unsegregated country, Earley and her unit found a solution that not only benefited them, but also allowed them to continue do their jobs effectively. Black nurses had to contend with not only racial disparities, but gender disparities as well. Indeed, gender disparities were problematic among both black and white nurses. Nurses have acted just as heroically towards the soldiers that they have risked their lives to save.
But as Valerie N. Wieskamp in her article The Nurses of Bataan: Liberating Wartime Heroes from Melodrama, points out “Dominant constructions of “heroism” follow a melodramatic frame that privileges masculine, individualistic actors who rescue the weak by eliminating or conquering the enemy.” Therefore, we tend to view heroism as gender specific, usually painting the male as savior and protector, especially during war, while downplaying the female role, and her “healing heroism” as Wieskamp calls it. An excellent example of this melodrama can be seen in a prisoner of war survivor and nurse during the Battle of Bataan, Captain Maude “Davy” Davidson. When given an opportunity to escape the Philippines, she bravely chose to stay and provide care to captured American soldiers, even as her health declined. After her release, physician military personnel recommended that she receive a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). This was a medal that was awarded for valor and sacrifice, and many, including General Douglas MacArthur supported the request. But some disagreed, reasoning that her actions only deserved the Legion of Merit Award (LMA), for outstanding performance duties. As Wieskamp pointed out, “The position of nursing itself, of laboring to care for human life, was not deemed one of great responsibility in the patriarchal culture of the military.” As nursing was only considered a to be a female job, this act clearly shows the gender bias.
Although black nurses were having a difficult time enlisting in the army during World War II, they often found their services in higher demand within civilian life, and often worked as private or traveling nurses. Hospitals were still segregated, especially in the South, making work more difficult for black nurses to obtain. However, As the Army and Navy expanded the military with soldiers in the beginning of World War II, both started to recruit more white nurses and this caused a shortage of nurses for civilians. Ora Porter, was a private nurse for white patrons and was Warren County, Kentucky’s first black registered nurse. According to her nieces who were interviewed for William Motel’s book, Tales from Kentucky Nurses, Porter worked long hours for white patrons and stayed with the families of the patient for as long as she was needed. She often worked for white patrons because black patrons could not afford the help. Known to be an excellent typhoid nurse, she was in demand. Porter was never a hospital assigned nurse, but did accompany patients to the hospital. This shows how although black nurses had an extremely difficult time being admitted into the military and were also regulated to segregated hospitals, black nurses were readily accepted as private nurses and were often appreciated for their excellent nursing skills, especially with typhoid, which was often common at that time. It helps to show that although black nurses had a difficult time finding jobs in the hospital and military environment, they found ways to earn a good living as traveling or private nurses. Singular families readily accepted them, but as a country, did not.
The refusal by the army to enlist more black nurses, proved to be detrimental to white soldiers and especially black soldiers, because it caused a nursing shortage. To more accurately understand how harmful the shortage was to the soldiers, the ratio was more than triple the soldier for every black nurse, “By late 1944 there were eight million men in the army, of whom seven hundred thousand were African American. Yet of the nearly 44,000 Army nurses, only 330 were African American. This meant that for every white nurse, there were 166 white soldiers, but for every black nurse, there were 2,126 black soldiers” The few black nurses who were allowed to serve were also confined to specific areas through segregation or were required to look after German POW’s who were perfectly healthy, further diminishing their role as nurses. Prudence Burns Burrell, was one of the few black nurses allowed to join the army in World War II. She, and fourteen other black nurses made up an all-black nursing unit which was sent to Australia to serve in the southwest Pacific. Burrel describes a particular incident in Diane Burke Fessler’s book, No Time for Fear, concerning the mistreatment towards her unit by a fellow serviceman and how the Australians took up for them. “There were embarrassing occasions because of segregation.
A white lieutenant colonel made a very loud statement to a group of Australians who had us as guests at the zoo, that he resented our being served before him at the restaurant because where he came from, “niggers” were not allowed into the whited facilities. They told him to wait or leave.” Although the black community was acutely aware of shortages, the white community, especially the wives and family members of white soldiers, understood the harmful effect segregating black nurses was having on the men who risked their lives overseas. “It was reported that wounded Americans received inadequate care, while black nurses were assigned to help German POWs.” This especially became apparent when the nursing shortage became critical enough that a nursing draft of women was considered by the War Department and a bill was drawn up. But the war ended before a bill to draft women reached the Senate, and it was therefore withdrawn.