The Closed Door of Justice: African American Nurses and the Fight for Naval Service

Today’s post is written by Alicia Henneberry, Archives Specialist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Commissioning ceremony in which Phyllis Dailey, second from right, became the first black nurse in the Navy Nursing Corps. March 8, 1945. NAID 520618.

In October 1908, twenty nurses reported for duty at the Naval Medical School Hospital in Washington D.C., officially becoming the first members of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps.[1] The Navy was the first branch of the U.S. military to formally admit women into their ranks by way of the Nursing Corps. However, this opportunity was not equally shared by all women that were eager to serve their country.

While white American nurses could apply and be admitted into the U.S. Navy Nursing Corps, African American nurses found their path to service blocked. Though these women also applied to the Navy well before WWII, they were denied consideration until 1945. The documents preserved at the National Archives in Record Group 52: Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery regarding African American nurses not only illustrate the racial barriers that obstructed black women from service, but also provide moving examples of both the nurses’ demands for acceptance and the advocates and allies who fought on their behalf.

The “applications” received from African American nurses by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery look quite different from a modern resume. In fact, they are handwritten letters of introduction sent to the superintendent of the Navy Nursing Corps. In these letters, the applicant stated their interest in being a part of the Navy and requested a position within its ranks. The earliest of the letters is dated 1924.

RG 52, Entry A1 1021-D, NAID 18558556

The nurses gave examples of their schooling and work experience to prove their professional qualifications. Some worked in schools or other public health initiatives, while others held more traditional nursing roles in hospitals across the country. Many also gave their age and descriptions of their physical fitness, which in most letters included the applicant’s race.

RG 52, Entry A1 1021-D, NAID 18558556

In response, each of these women received a short, concise rejection from the head of the Nursing Corps. These rejection letters stated in various terms that there were no billets or duties for “colored nurses” or that they would not be “happy or adaptable” among its ranks. A few of the lengthier dismissals made a point to state that though “there are no activities in the Naval Service where colored nurses could be advantageously utilized,” rejection was not “in any way a reflection on [her] race.” 

Example of a standard reply from the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. RG 52, Entry A1 1021-D, NAID 18558556.

As the Second World War broke out, letters from black nurses continued to arrive at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Many of the applications received during wartime began to exude a notable tone of frustration. These women lamented both the lack of black nurses in the corps, and the fact that they were not even given the courtesy of being considered. “Again and again I stand and knock at the closed door of justice,” wrote Ethel Ross, R.N. in her letter to Secretary Frank Knox in 1943, “Why should I-an American Citizen-have to knock so hard and so long for a birthright…especially when my country needs me?”

There were a variety of factors that contributed to the feelings of frustration and anger emanating from letters like Ethel Ross’s. As World War II wore on, these women would have been watching their male counterparts enlist in the Navy where they could not. Enlistment of black men in the Navy greatly increased during wartime, and in 1942, they were permitted to serve in a larger variety of enlisted roles, not just in the mess positions they had previously been relegated to. Nursing applicants began to cite this service in their letters, as shown by the passionate demands from Grace Scott, R.N. and Miss Freddie M. Jackson below.

For all intents and purposes, black nurses were as eligible as their white counterparts for service. According to a report produced by the National Nursing Council for War Service and the National Association of Colored Graduate Students, the qualifications for becoming a Registered Nurse (RN) within the U.S. was the same for all nursing candidates, regardless of race or where they received their training.[2]

As of March 1941, the American Red Cross, which administered the assignment of nurses to the Navy Nursing Corps during WWII until about 1943, had also declared that black nurses were eligible for wartime service provided that they could meet the full requirements, which included proper professional affiliations, graduation from an accredited school of nursing, U.S. citizenship, and the Navy’s physical fitness standards.[3]

Additionally, a significant shortage of military nurses became a serious problem for the U.S. armed forces during WWII, so much so that discussions on implementing a nursing Selective Service Act were held, and programs like the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps were established in order to increase the numbers of qualified medical professionals.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the nurses’ frustration was that the Army Nursing Corps began permitting the enlistment of black nurses in 1941 in response to the shortages and pressure from the nursing councils, though they capped the billets at 10% of the total corps. Why then, these nurses asked in their letters, would the Navy not budge? As the war raged on, the Navy Nursing Corps continued to deny applications from African American nurses by maintaining that there were “at present” no positions open for “nurses of color” in the U.S. Navy.

The fact that there were no black nurses in the Navy Nursing Corps during such dire times eventually began to receive considerable attention. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, had received messages regarding this exclusion, and wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, with her concerns:[4]

Eleanor Roosevelt to Secretary James Forrestal. RG 80, Entry PC-31 23, Box 37.

Secretary Forrestal passed the First Lady’s letter onto the Acting Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, D.G. Sutton. Sutton responded with a memo conceding that while a 500-nurse shortage existed in the Medical Corps as of November 1943, there were about 500 white women in training and indoctrination for the Nurse Corps at that time, and as such, the billets were, again, “full,” and “the necessity for accepting colored personnel in the category is not apparent.”[5]

Memorandum for Secretary Knox from D.G. Sutton. BUMED-S-EC, 26 November 1943. RG 80, Entry PC-31 23. Box 37. Filed under folder 54-2.

Fortunately, as Mrs. Roosevelt’s letter indicates, these women were not alone in their pursuit of acceptance to the Navy Nursing Corps; other civilians wrote to the Navy arguing against this discrimination. Petitions from organizations such as the Sweethearts of Servicemen, W.I.V.E.S, and the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Maritime Union, as well as letters from religious groups and private citizens, were sent on behalf of these nurses, demanding that women of any color who are able and qualified should be considered for service.

In their petitions, these groups and individuals cited the discrepancy between the dire need for nurses for the U.S. military and the refusal to accept colored nurses. News of the nursing shortages, both in the military and private sector, were well-known during the war, and an influx of public advertisements attempting to close that gap did not go unnoticed by these advocates. These women chastised the Navy for ignoring the able-bodied group of black nurses who could help fill its ranks.

It was not until the waning days of the war that the nurses’ demands for consideration and the protests from supporters were finally met with a positive answer. In a letter written in March 1945, the Surgeon General stated that the Navy would at long last accept “a number of qualified black nurses.”

The letters from the Bureau of Medicine sent to applicants and protests after this announcement contain stark differences from those sent before March 1945. As previously discussed, the early rejection letters stated the Navy had declared that there was no room for black nurses or that they would not be “happy or adaptable” in the Navy Nursing Corps; they then declared to all who wrote in that “there is no policy in the Navy which discriminates against the utilization of Negro nurses.” In a letter to House Representative Margaret Chase Smith dated 1947, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal said that the number of applications from black nurses during the war and directly after were “small” and, remarkably, “judged by the same standards applicable to all other applicants.”  He added, “it is assumed that those rejected were physically disqualified.”[6]

Letter from Secretary Forrestal to Margaret Chase Smith. RG 52, Entry A1 1021-D, NAID 18558556

These statements by the Navy, most especially Forrestal’s assertion that race was not a factor in dismissing candidates, appear quite dubious considering what the correspondence from the Bureau of Medicine indicate prior to 1945. A particularly disappointing example was in the case of Marion Ewell. Ms. Ewell, a well-qualified and seemingly healthy nurse, applied with a letter to the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in 1935, though she notably did not include her race in her application like the others in this series did. Myn M. Hoffman, the superintendent of the Navy Nursing Corps at the time, noted that Ms. Ewell’s school of training was for black nurses, and inquired with contacts about the young woman’s race, saying she “felt it would simplify things to have the information before taking further action on her application.” Once her suspicions were confirmed, Hoffman then sent Ewell a rejection letter repeating the familiar line about how she would not be happy or adaptable to life as a Navy nurse.

This small collection of documents ultimately speaks to just how long and arduous the process of integration of the Navy was in all sectors. Secretary Frank Knox, Forrestal, and other appointed leaders, though at first opposed to the idea of allowing African Americans to serve, eventually worked towards their inclusion during the World War II period. However, senior commanders and those heading the Navy’s bureaus at this time were largely against such action and made integration difficult. Pressure from the press, public, and politicians (even from the President himself) slowly turned the tide toward reform, but admittance for black personnel remained a slow and sluggish fight. Through the duration of the war, the Navy was unable to shake its reputation for discrimination, which ultimately kept the numbers of potential enlistees low and hopeful nurses away.

At long last, the first black nurse, Phyllis Dailey, was inducted into the Navy in March 1945. As of July 1945, three others had joined her on active duty: Helen Turner, Ivy Montgomery, and Edith Devoe.[7]  Mabel K. Staupers, executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, wrote to Forrestal to thank him for his efforts, and stated how much admittance to the Navy Nursing Corps meant to these nurses. Though the number of jobs given to these women were still low and there was much ground yet to be gained, she told him that their inclusion “brought them the feeling that Democracy was still alive in America.”


Bibliography

-Burris, Marsha L. Paradox of Professionalism: American Nurses in World War II. Spiral Publications, July 2007.

-Hine, Darlene Clark. Black women in white: racial conflict and cooperation in the nursing profession :1890-1950. Indiana University Press. 1989

-MacGregor, Morris J. Defense Studies: Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, Center of Military History, United States Army, 2001 https://history.army.mil/html/books/050/50-1-1/cmhPub_50-1-1.pdf

-Roussel, Meg. “Phyllis Mae Dailey: First Black Navy Nurse” The National World War II Museum. March 8, 2012

-Sterner, Doris M. In and Out of Harm’s Way: A History of the Navy Nurse Corps. Peanut Butter Pub., 1997.

-Williams, Rudi. “African Americans in the Navy” American Forces Press Service, U.S. Department of Defense News.

-“Establishment of Navy Nurse Corps” Public Law No. 115, 13 May 1908

-“The Negro in the Navy: United States Naval Administrative History of World War II” Prepared by the Historical Section, Bureau of Naval Personnel. 1947.

– “The Army Nurse Corps” The U.S. Army Center of Military History. 3 October 2003. https://www.dday.org/2017/02/09/african-american-women-in-the-army-nurse-corps-during-world-war-ii/


Footnotes:

[1] “Nurse Corps, U.S. Navy” M.E. Dwenger, LT. NC, USN. Record Group 52: Records of the Bureau of Medicine, Entry A1 1021-D: Records Relating to the History of the Navy Nurse Corps, 1908-1975.

[2] “Facts About Negro Nurses and the War” Prepared jointly by the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and the National Council for War Service. February 21, 1945.  RG 52, Entry A1 1021-D. Box 6.

[3] “Requirements for Enrollment” American Red Cross Nursing Service. Extracts from ARC 703. March 1941. RG 52. Entry A1 1021-D. Box 6

[4] Eleanor Roosevelt to Secretary Forrestal. BUMED-S-EC, 26 November 1943. RG 80, Entry PC-31 23. Box 37. Filed under folder 54-2.

[5] Memorandum for Secretary Knox from D.G. Sutton. BUMED-S-EC, 26 November 1943. RG 80, Entry PC-31 23. Box 37. Filed under folder 54-2.

[6] Letter from Secretary Forrestal to Margaret Chase Smith. RG 52. Entry A1 48 D. Box 6.

[7] Office of Public Information Memo, BuMed-MM-mpf, 2 July 1945. RG 52 Entry A1 1021-D. Subject: Negro Nurses. Box 6.

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