Author: Charissa Threat, Associate Professor of History, Chapman University (USA)
The UKAHN Bulletin
Volume 9 (1) 2021

The following article is a verbatim extract from Chapter 2 (pp. 46-52) of Charissa Threat’s recent book, Nursing Civil Rights: Gender and Race in the Army Nurse Corps. Copyright 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. A review of her book is here:

 UKAHN is very grateful for the permission granted by UIP to reproduce this extract and would like to emphasize that it remains subject to UIP’s stated copyright.

A review of the book can be found here Charissa J Threat (2015) Nursing Civil Rights: Gender & Race in the Army Nurse Corps, but it may be helpful to provide some context to the extract which follows.

Introduction by Sue Hawkins, Editor, UKAHN Bulletin

Nursing Civil Rights focuses on the development of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps from the end of the 19th century to the post-second world war period, and the impact of societal changes, especially in relation to issues of gender and race, on this development. The book explores how the ANC, echoing societal prejudices, discriminated against both African American women and white men, and how both groups staged parallel battles against this occupational segregation, viewing their treatment by the ANC as a civil rights matter.

The main bulk of the book explores challenges thrown up by World War II and the immediate post-war period. Chapter 2 itself focuses on the attempts by black female nurses to be accepted into the Army Nurse Corp on an equal footing with their white female counterparts. It addresses the challenges African American women faced in getting access to training, and how even if this was achieved, opportunities for career development were few and far between. It studies the role of civil rights organisations in debates on discrimination within the armed forces, in particular the impact of the National Association for Colored Graduate Nurses; and describes how despite the increasing demands of war and the dire ‘shortage’ of nurses, the army was determined to maintain its strict segregation rules. This extract focuses on the response to those shortages, by the U.S. Army, the government, the general public and black nurses themselves, frustrated at being blocked from providing the answer.


“The Negro Nurse – A Citizen Fighting for Democracy” African Americans and Army Nurse Corps


The Nurse Shortage, a Nurse Draft, and Public Outcry

Most U.S. Army Nurse Corps (ANC) records and public accounts suggest that while the number of nurses remained constant early in the [second world war], by mid-1944 the supply had not kept up with the demand.[1]  The demands for the recruitment of nurses fluctuated by as much as ten thousand from month to month in 1944.  The U.S. Army recognized that as the perceived need for nurses increased, recruitment campaigns were not meeting the army’s expectations.  This situation was not due to a public that was unaware.  According to the American Journal of Nursing, “78 percent of the population … were aware of the shortage of nurses,” and were growing “increasingly impatient with the Army’s refusal to use available nurses.”[2]  The New York Times noted that the army pushed to recruit one thousand nurses a month in the summer of 1944, while the surgeon general announced a month-long campaign to rally recruits for the Cadet Nurse Corps.[3]  Still, the failure to remove the quotas on African America nurses bewildered most Americans who read about the estimated two thousand available black nurses in articles published across the nation in both white and black newspapers.[4]  In the summer of 1944 the Army considered a new strategy to recruit women who had nursing degrees, but were not working as nurses.

In July 1944, the U.S. Army and War Department announced its decision to increase the number of black nurses serving with the nurse corps.  Although the surgeon general maintained that no quota had ever existed in the army, both the white and black press labeled this step as the army’s removal of racial quotas for the employment of nurses.[5]  The New York Times reported that, “nurses would be accepted without regard to race or creed,” while a Chicago Defender headline read “Army Lifts Quota Ban on Negro Nurses.”  Since the beginning of the war this was the first indication of any real breakdown of racial barriers.  Nevertheless, the only assurances the surgeon general gave to those who questioned the assignment of African American nurses was to suggest that black and white nurses “will be assigned to positions they are best fitted to fill and where the maximum benefits can be secured from their services.”  In other words, the surgeon general offered no guarantee that the segregation of black nurses would cease with the acceptance of all qualified African American nurses.[6]

Indeed, while black newspapers heralded the apparent change in army policy as a long-awaited and hard-won victory for African American nurses, some members of the black press did not miss the opportunity to comment about the Army’s complete turnaround with respect to the treatment of African Americans.  They were skeptical and suspicious and [as a cartoon published in New York Amsterdam News suggested], warned not just black nurses but also the African American populace to be leery about the welcome.  [In the cartoon] the ugly, masculine image of a white army nurse hides a “no negro nurse” sign behind her back, while aggressively pulling the highly feminized, attractive black nurse into the Army Nurse Corps.[7]  What did the complete acceptance of African American nurses really mean for African Americans?  Clearly, the cartoonist worried about protecting African American females after their acceptance into a military organization and feared their loss of femininity and sexuality.  The cartoonist hints that military nurses were unfeminine, asexual, or even worse, “butch” and lesbian.[8] Further, although the army lifted its ban on the use of black nurses – represented by the chained dog in the cartoon – this did not mean that discrimination against African American nurses was at an end.[9]  Superior officers’ treatment of black nurses and duty assignment revealed that the admission of black nurses did not amount to equal treatment.[10]  With few exceptions, African American nurses remained largely on segregated bases in the United States.[11]

Even after the July announcement, the chief of black nurses at the station hospital in a POW camp in Phoenix, Arizona, informed Mabel K. Staupers about the reality of black nurses’ daily lives.[12]  In one letter, she discussed feelings of isolation both on and off base.   She informed Staupers, “We could not be served in any café or soda fountain,” and while all white officers, including prisoners of war, had help cleaning their quarters, “we are the only women on the entire post with no help whatsoever.”  She added further: “Apparently we are not considered officers by those in command for we are never included in the command affairs and meetings for all officers of the post to attend.”    Finally, she lamented, “as time goes by conditions seem to get worse than better.”  Ignored by command officers, refused service in town and on base, and treated with contempt even by prisoners of war, black nurses suffered the constant reminder of their place in military and civilian society.  They were, apparently, little more than the tolerated help.  Local citizens wanted the bases to provide everything that the nurses needed so they would not visit the local towns.  The army’s mismanagement of resources in assigning black nurses to too few locations in the United States compounded these unfavorable experiences.  For instance, at Ft. Huachuca, there were 97 nurses caring for 110 patients at one point during the war.[13]

By August of 1944, when casualty care in the war zones and for those returning to the United States peaked, officials in charge of nurse procurement realized they needed nearly sixty thousand nurses to meet demand.  The Cadet Nurse Corps provided some relief, particularly in supplying civilian hospitals with student nurses, but the program was only a year old in mid-1944.  Even with the cadet nurse program and the army’s new policy concerning African American nurses, the ANC did not add black nurses proportionately. By mid-1944, just over three hundred African American nurses served in the army.[14]  Regardless of the official end of restrictions against the use of African American female nurses, discrimination continued to block their participation.  Officials continued to station black nurses on bases and in areas that catered mostly to black soldiers and prisoners of war.  Even the small units of nurses deployed abroad spent a significant amount of time in some form of segregated settings either in housing, patient care, or duty assignment.[15]  With little regard for the number of black female nurses available for appointment in the ANC, at the end of the year, the surgeon general made the decision to send a number of general hospitals overseas without nurses.[16]  While ANC records are unclear about the need for nurses with these general hospitals, the public was horrified to learn about continuing nursing shortage and that hospital units were going overseas without nurses as a result.  Such publicity advanced the idea of a female nurse draft among a larger public audience.

Quietly, conversations about drafting women, particularly female nurses, occurred for months within a larger conversation about Selective Service for all American citizens.  In April 1944, a Chicago Defender article revealed that talk about a women’s draft had elicited a government response.  In a press memo dated March 30, 1944, the War Bureau of Public Relations declared: “Intimations that the Army was considering drafting nurses are incorrect. No such plans have been considered.”[17]   Despite this assurance, drafting female nurses became a viable option to deal with nursing shortages.  In December 1944 journalist Walter Lippmann’s scathing editorial pointed out that one cause of the nursing shortage was the fact that “women are not subject to the draft.” He continued: “[O]nly an aroused and informed public opinion, focused as it may be by a Congressional inquiry, could break this logjam in the recruitment of women.”[18]  The draft was necessary, in his opinion, because American women, more concerned with comfortable, higher-paying civilian jobs, had failed in their obligation to the nation’s fighting men.  Lippmann’s editorial, published in newspapers across the country, served as a call to arms to many in the public who were enraged by the apparent truth of Lippmann’s claims.  Unsubstantiated reports that suggested soldiers were dying for want of care led some to see drafting nurses as the best means of addressing a desperate situation.   Until Lippman’s editorial, few had spoken so publicly about the delicate subject of drafting women into military service.  It was, after all, a radical idea; it would necessitate refashioning military service as an obligation and responsibility of not only American men, but also American women. While this draft focused on a single group of women, some feared that, before long, all women would be subject to the draft.

Notwithstanding the concerns over drafting women, President Roosevelt was disturbed by reports that recruitment had failed and nursing shortages persisted.  On January 6, 1945, the president announced to Congress his support for legislation to expand the Selective Service Act of 1940, which would include, for the first time in American history, the drafting of female nurses into the army.[19]  The president’s request to Congress was made more salient when Surgeon General Kirk declared: “It looks as if [the draft] will be necessary to meet the immediate need for nurses by a Congressional draft.”[20]  Three days later, Representative Andrew J. May’s House Bill 1284, known as the Nurse Draft Bill, went to Congress and the Committee on Military Affairs.  Roosevelt hoped that this bill would quickly resolve the nurse-shortage problem.

Roosevelt’s proposal to Congress produced unpredicted results for both the president and supporters of the nurse draft.  A public outcry quickly materialized in opposition to drafting female nurses.[21]  Drawing upon the publicized availability of African American nurses, concerned citizens and supporters of black nurses went on the offensive.   The proposed draft even sparked a confrontation between Staupers and Surgeon General Kirk.  Lamenting the underutilization of qualified African American women, Staupers asked Kirk: “If nurses are needed so desperately, why isn’t the Army using colored nurses?”[22]  She then used her connections through the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) to rally opposition to the nurse draft.  She pointed out the hypocrisy of “calling for a draft of nurses while excluding large numbers of black nurses willing to serve.”[23]  She asked supporters of African American female nurses to write to the White House, their congressional representatives, and the media to call attention to the availability of woman for service.

Telegrams supporting the use of black female nurses inundated the White House from groups as varied as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Federation of Labor, United Church Women, and the National Council of Negro Women. One urged, “Mothers and Fathers of America: It is your sons that may never return because of inadequate nursing … telegraph or write to your Senators and Representatives today.”[24]  Members of Congress received an abundance of these letters.  Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts received letters that chastised her support of the nurse draft and questioned the failure of employing African American women.  “It is a deplorable situation.  It means that the officials in charge of nursing services believe it is better for their service to go understaffed than to be staffed by negroes.”[25]  The acting secretary of the National Negro Congress wrote to the president that “the nation-wide support which [black nurses have] received on this specific issue, we believe, indicates that our nation and the armed forces generally are ready to accept Negro nurses on a basis of full integration.”[26] The NACGN even released a statement concluding that any bill extending the Selective Service Act to women nurses should “be amended in order that the service to American soldiers be placed on the basis of need for nursing care and not on the basis of limitations because of race, creed, or national origin.”[27]  Black nurses and their supporters emphasized one important fact: women nurses willing to care for soldiers did exist, but race discrimination kept them from doing so.

Their campaign for full integration was strengthened because black nurses publicly exposed the flaws in the female draft bill and the public fear that American soldiers were dying because of nursing shortages.  As one historian described it, “Roosevelt apparently had not the slightest appreciation for the depth of the public’s dissatisfaction with the armed services’ restrictive [policies] towards nurses.”[28]  Public opinion saw only one viable option: allowing black nurses to join the ANC was preferable to the drastic measure of drafting even a very small segment of the female population.

Just two weeks after President Roosevelt’s radio address to Congress, the surgeon general and the War Department jointly declared an end to exclusionary racial practices.  The ANC would now accept, without regard to race, all qualified nurses.[29]  This was indeed a major success for African American female nurses and the NACGN.  Only six months before, however, the army had made a similar announcement.  The drastic difference in the joint proclamation by the surgeon general and the War Department was a large, awakened public opinion.

Congress continued to debate the feasibility of drafting female nurses throughout the late winter and early spring of 1945.  Yet, by this time, opposition to the draft had gained support and recruitment numbers had increased.  Those adamantly opposed offered several counterarguments. First, some nurses contended that drafting nurses for military service was the wrong approach, as it singled out a small population of American women.[30]  In this way, a draft would discriminate against both sex and occupation.  Catherine Dempsey, the president of the American Association of Industrial Nurses, argued instead that it would be fairer and more sensible to institute a universal draft for all women.[31]  Second, drafting female nurses did not address the problem of how a shortage had occurred in the first place.  Instead, the draft proposal drew attention to the military’s racial and gender bias, evident throughout the war, as it had refused to fully employ African American nurses and had disregarded the use of male nurses.[32]  Finally, some argued that proposals to draft nurses inherently focused on drafting white female nurses.  If drafting nurses remained a possibility, the military needed to address these concerns.

Public opinion of black nurses had also changed as the war ended.  Within a month of the surgeon general’s announcement, a national opinion poll reported that more than half of the white adults surveyed were amenable to care by black nurses.[33]  In a March 1945 issue of the Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, Janet Geister wrote: “I’ve often wondered, as I read that ‘men are dying for want of nursing care,’ if these men would cavil over the color or texture of the hands that might save them?”[34]  Geister’s response was directed to the ongoing draft debates, but her insightful comments expose how the exigencies of war provided the space and opportunity to challenge – temporarily in some cases – race and gender relationships in the United States.  During World War II, the African American female nurses’ campaign to integrate the ANC was best exemplified in the struggles for nursing service and nursing care.   African American female nurses and their supporters questioned racial boundaries and argued for an inclusive civil rights movement, while promoting and strengthening traditional understandings of gender roles.  Their promotion of traditional gender roles helped their cause and provided a victory for racial civil rights.  However, male nurses who, employing a similar strategy, argued for integration at the same moment failed to breach the same barriers.


[1] Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the Army Nurse Corps (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 271.

[2] Every few months between 1943 and 1945 procurement numbers change from forty thousand to fifty thousand, back to forty thousand, and, by late 1944, sixty thousand. Major Edna B. Groppe, “Statement made at the public hearing before the House Military Affairs Committee on February 14, 1945,” American Journal of Nursing 45 (March 1945): 175; “Recruitment material,” American Nurses’ Association Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, box 228.

[3] “Seek 8,500 More Nurses,” New York Times, July 18, 1944.

[4] Mabel K. Staupers, “Negro Nurses Would Serve,” New York Times, December 19, 1944; “Suggests Negro Nurses,” New York Times, January 12, 1945; “Would Use Negro Nurses,” New York Times, January 21, 1945; and Ramona Lowe, “Army Lifts Quota Ban on Nurses,” Chicago Defender, July 15,1944.

[5] Al Smith, “U.S. Answers Nurse Charge,” Chicago Defender, April 8, 1944.

[6] Ibid.

[7] [Sadly, UKAHN Bulletin does not have permission to reproduce the cartoon.]

[8] Fears about lesbians and unfeminine women led the military to have strict policies concerning the appearance and behaviors of women in uniform during World War II. Leisa Meyer, Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[9] The cartoon was part of a series of cartoons created by Melvin Tapley that depicted racism and race relations in the United States. On military nurses, Tapley published two cartoons, commenting on the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps.  Melvin Tapley, “Glad to see you…now!” New York Amsterdam News, July 22, 1944; “Army Lifts Ban on Negro Nurses,” PM, July 12, 1944.

[10] Lowe, “Army Lifts Quota Ban”; Truman Gibson (aide to Sec. of War) to Mabel K. Staupers, July 1944, NACGN Records, 1908-1951.

[11] Units of African American nurses arrived in Liberia and the South Pacific in 1943 and in England, Scotland, and Burma in 1944.  “First Negro Nurses Land at War Front in Scotland,” New York Amsterdam News, August 26, 1944.

[12] [Mabel K. Staupers (1890-1989) was the first executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. Born in Barbados, she campaigned for racial equality within the nursing profession.]

[13] These letters express the general experiences of black nurses at two bases in Arizona and are a good indicator of the black nurse experience.  At least one black nurse, however, did write to the alumni association at Howard University at the end of the war and explained that at her last station hospital there was no discrimination, she cared for POWs and white GIs, and she received respect from all the personnel. Unknown author, October 29 and November 16, 1944, Mabel K. Staupers Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University: Washington, D.C. [Hereinafter known as MSRC], box 96-2, and Lt. Lucia A. Rapley to Mr. Nabrit, May 12, 1945, Howard University Men and Women in the Armed Forces, MSRC, box 122-1.

[14] “African American Nurses – End of Month”, cited in “Strength of the Army,” Army Nurse Corps Archives, Office of the Surgeon General [hereinafter ANCA, OSG], box 108.

[15] There are some general references to a few cases where there were opportunities for Negro and white nurses serving aboard in integrated settings. Staupers, Negro Nurses Would Serve; “Negro Nurses Protest Having to Treat Nazis,” Chicago Defender, November 11, 1944; Edward B. Toles, “Negro Nurses Tend Nazi War Prisoners in Britain,” Chicago Defender, December 2, 1944. .

[16] Groppe, “Statement”, p. 175.

[17] Smith, “U.S. Answers Nurse Charge”.

[18] Walter Lippmann, “American Women and Our Wounded Men,” Washington Post, December 19, 1944.

[19] The Selective Service Act of 1940 instituted the first peace-time draft in the history of the United States and called on every able-bodied man to give one year of service to the nations’ military; the inclusion of female nurses to that act would call into question the constitutionality of drafting not only females but a exclusive population of women into the service of the United States.

[20] Major General Norman Kirk as quoted in “Nurses Face Draft as Casualties Rise,” Stars and Strips, January 7, 1945, ANCA, OSG, box 79.

[21] “Army Still is Balky on Using Negro Nurses: Surgeon General Admits Drafting May Be Necessary,” PM, January 5, 1945.

[22] Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 178-81.

[23] Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, while supportive of an “overall draft of nurses, blasted the Jim-Crow-quota of black nurses.” “First Lady Urges End of Ban on Negro Nurses,” Chicago Defender, January 20, 1945; Hine, Black Women in White, 178-81.

[24] In an advertisement, Ethel Clyde asks mothers and fathers of American soldiers to telegram their Senators to demand Negro nurses be allowed into the Army before it was too late to help their sons.  Ethel Clyde [telegram] January 30, 1945, Records of the NAACP, part 15, series B, reel 9, frame 380.

[25] Robert A. Moss to Edith Nourse Rogers, January 18, 1945, Edith Nourse Rogers Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, MC 196, box 1, folder 15.

[26] Hine, Black Women in White, 180-181.

[27] National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, “A Statement from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in Relations to the Extension of the Selective Service Act to Include the Drafting of Nurses,” Mabel K. Staupers Papers, MSRC, box 96-2.

[28] Although speaking in particular about the situation of African American nurses, Darlene Clark Hine has perhaps the best description of the moment for most Americans.  See, Hine, Black Women in White, 180.

[29] The January 20, 1945, declaration by the surgeon general is a little misleading as it pertained to African American nurses.  Officially, the army lifted the quotas or “Jim Crow” ban of black nurses, in early July 1944, but getting African American nurses appointed was still difficult.  The January 20, 1945, declaration took the July 1944 end to quotas a step further, ensuring that all qualified female nurses would be accepted.  See, Lowe, “Army Lifts Quota Ban” and Hine, Black Women in White, 181.

[30] Commenting on the “Draft Nurse Bill,” a number of nurses focused on the discriminatory nature of the bill in singling out women nurses.  “Notes on the Draft Nurse Bill,” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, April 1945, 258.

[31] “Nurses’ Draft,” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, February 1945, 114.

[32] According to the 1940 U.S. Census and the American Nurses’ Association, there were just over eight thousand male nurses in the United States and just over seven thousand African American nurses in the United States.  This number included those practicing and students.  By January 1943, about three hundred men nurses self-reported serving in one branch of the armed forces.  American Nurses’ Association, Facts about Nursing (1943),  12; and American Nurses’ Association, Facts about Nurses (1946), 18.

[33] The national poll focused on the nursing care received from women; no mention was made to the use or commissioning of male nurses in the Army Nurse Corps.  “Army Opposes Anti-Bias Clause in Nurse Draft,” Chicago Defender, February 24, 1945, 1.

[34] Janet Geister, “Plain Talk,” Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, March 1945, 206.