In observance of International Nurses Day, an excerpt from Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps, by Clarissa J. Threat.
Before 1941 African Americans did not ignore the military’s call for nurses. Hoping to participate, black nurses rushed to the nearest Red Cross recruitment location to join the nurse corps. The vast majority, however, faced outright rejection during the first few years of the war and a less-than-welcoming acceptance during the final years of the war. From one black nurse, [activist Mabel K.] Staupers learned: “In reply to your letter of Sept. 27, 1940, I regret to tell you that your application for appointment in the Army Nurse Corps cannot be given favorable consideration as there are no provisions in Army Regulations for the appointment of colored nurses in the Nurse Corps. . . . It is regretted that circumstances preclude a more favorable reply.”
After receiving several similar letters from disheartened black nurses, Staupers pleaded with the president to “do something to remove this stigma from the Negro nurse.” Staupers, like A. Philip Randolph, hoped that her direct appeal to Roosevelt about the role of African Americans in the war might pressure him to take decisive action against the blatant discrimination. Further, Staupers also let the president know that the fight to secure the full admission of black nurses into the ANC would not go away: “We have prepared ourselves . . . and can see no reason why we should be denied service in the Army Nurse Corps.”
Less than a week after Staupers wrote to the president, the surgeon general’s office notified Staupers of two important decisions. First, the use of “colored nurses in the Medical Department of the Army as reserve nurses” was under consideration in the War Department. This meant that the War Department at least recognized that there would be a need for black nurses.
Second, together with the release of the War Department’s “plan for use of colored personnel,” the surgeon general and Medical Department of the army proposed the use of a small number of African American female nurses to care solely for black soldiers in locations dominated by segregated troops.
In this way, General George C. Marshall believed the War Department was protecting “the social relationship between negroes and whites which has been established by the American people through custom and habit.” The army could avoid, or at least lessen, any fears or protest about race mixing in its medical department; black nurses would be concerned primarily with nursing black American soldiers, leaving white nurses to care for white soldiers. The military had no intention, Surgeon General Magee later declared, of allowing “colored nurses or colored physicians” to “be engaged in the care and treatment of military personnel other than colored.”
If this was not enough to drive home the command’s belief about “race mixing,” the inferiority of African Americans, and the limited use of blacks in the war effort, General Marshall also noted that “either through lack of educational opportunities or other causes the level of intelligence and occupational skill of the Negro population is considerably below that of the white.”69 Yet the decision by the War and Medical Departments and the new policy concerning the use of black nurses brought up some troubling issues for nurses and civil rights activists; the army implemented segregated medical care for soldiers and the segregated stationing of black nurses where no historic precedent existed.