Black Nurses, Then and Now

“Despite the surgeon general’s plea for more nurses to enlist, the army set a quota of 56 black nurses. However, the NACGN helped to abolish this quota, and by the end of World War II, more than 500 black nurses had served in the army and four had served in the navy.”

Nurses gathered at Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio, 1918.

The theme for this year’s Black History Month, “African Americans in Times of War,” was chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH)* to commemorate the end of World War I in 1918.

In keeping with the theme, we offer this photo, which appeared on the cover of our February 2010 issue. The cover story, by Alison Bulman, provided context:

It was 1918 and the armistice ending World War I had just been signed when black nurses gathered at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, to take the photo that appears on our cover. Although the Army Nurse Corps had been established some 17 years earlier, black nurses had only just been permitted to join. Despite their honorable service in the Spanish-American War in 1898 and in World War I, it wasn’t until the desperate need for nurses during the influenza pandemic of 1918 that black nurses were able to take significant steps toward equality.

Before 1900, especially in the South, segregation and discrimination affected both nursing school admissions and patient care. This resulted in the establishment of all-black hospitals and schools. Black nurses also started forming local urban clubs, culminating in the founding in 1908 of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), an organization that played a pivotal role in gaining rights for black nurses. Black nurses were still fighting for their rights when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Despite the surgeon general’s plea for more nurses to enlist, the army set a quota of 56 black nurses. However, the NACGN helped to abolish this quota, and by the end of World War II, more than 500 black nurses had served in the army and four had served in the navy.

Percentage of black nurses not projected to increase.

Despite gains, diversity in nursing remains an issue that the Future of Nursing report notes needs further emphasis. According to figures compiled by Data USA from the US Census Bureau, in 2015 blacks comprised 11.5% of the total RN workforce (and 12.5% of the total U.S. population); 76% of nurses in the U.S. were white. Federal workforce projections through 2030 see the percentage of black nurses remaining steady.

Nursing leader Alicia Georges, currently chair of the board of AARP, writing in a 2010 editorial in AJN, noted,

“As we pay tribute this month to the accomplishments of black nurses and other black Americans, we must be willing to seek answers to some cogent questions. What, specifically, have academic and health care institutions done to ensure that black nurses are given access to educational programs and job opportunities at these institutions? Have their leaders reached out to those in professional nursing organizations with whom they might collaborate on projects to improve such access and ensure success for black nurses?”

We welcome your comments and experiences.

*Note on the ASALH and on Black HIstory Month. Founded in 1915 by Carter Woodson, a son of slaves who went on to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1912, ASALH aims to disseminate information about black life and contributions to history. It’s website credits him as the “father of black history” and notes: “In 1926, Dr. Woodson initiated the celebration of Negro History Week, which corresponded with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, this celebration was expanded to include the entire month of February.”

2018-02-12T09:00:39+00:00 February 12th, 2018|Nursing, nursing history|1 Comment
Editor-in-chief, AJN

One Comment

  1. Wendie Howland MN RN-BC CRRN CCM CNLCP LNCC February 12, 2018 at 11:50 am

    It is interesting that the antecedents of the ANA formed in the 1890s, but the National Association of Colored Nurses was founded nearly forty years before it affiliated with the ANA in 1951. I wrote the following in a JLNC editorial in 2016:
    “Reading the ANA’s historical events (
    Categories/AboutANA/History/BasicHistoricalReview.pdf) I was struck by how nurses formed the organization and drove it forward based on obtaining validation and recognition for existing nursing practice; the ANA did not lead practice but promoted the abilities and emerging practices already happening, developing a conceptual framework for itself that focused on patient care as it went along. There were already nurses delivering nursing care as public health nurses. There were already black women nurses. There were already nurse midwives. This calls to mind the words attributed to Ledru-Rollin in 1848 and, in various forms, to Gandhi and others: There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

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