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From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Historian's Corner: Dr. Charissa Threat on African American Women in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps

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In February 22nd's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 111, host Theo Mayer spoke with historian and Chapman University Professor Charissa Threat about the participation of African American women in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. These women faced systemic discrimination along the lines of race and gender, yet managed to serve despite these barriers. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:  

Theo Mayer: This week in our segment, "The Historian's Corner" we're gonna talk about a subject that bridges our February's Black History Month theme with March's Women's History Month. We're going to talk about 18 African American Nurses that joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corp. To tell us about this, we're joined by Dr. Charissa Threat, Associate Professor of History at Chapman University. Dr. Threat is part of a growing group of scholars that are broadening the view of military history to include scholarship that explores the intersection of civilian-military relationships that relate to race, gender, and conflict. Dr. Threat, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Threat: Thank you so much for having me, Theo.charissathreatDr. Threat is an Associate Professor of History at Chapman University

Theo Mayer: I was going to mention that you're an Associate of Dr. Jennifer Keene who was on the show with us a couple of weeks ago, aren't you?

Dr. Threat: I am. Brand new.

Theo Mayer: Oh, well it sounds like the subject of WWI African American participation and women's participation is seriously alive and well at Chapmen.

Dr. Threat: Yes, definitely. 

Theo Mayer: Okay, so Charissa, I'm fascinated by the story for a whole bunch of reasons. Let me start with gender. Did the Army actually recognize these women as members of the Army?

Dr. Threat: Well the easy answer to that is, yes and no. Because technically the Army Nurse Corp was an auxiliary of the Army, meaning the nurses who served in the Army Nurse Corp served with the military, but not in the military. So, while they were recognized as being part of the military, they had a very ambiguous relationship in terms of benefits and in terms of status.

Theo Mayer: Did they earn Veterans Benefits?

Dr. Threat: Most of them did not. As a matter of fact the U.S. Army Nurse Corp reduced its size considerably after WWI, and so a lot of nurses, even if they did want to stay in the military were essentially out after the end of the war by the time we get to 1919. There were very few benefits attached to that. Nothing like what we see later on in WWII with the G.I. Bill, for example.

Theo Mayer: The women that we are talking about, the African American women that served as nurses- they started serving after the Armistice, didn't they?

Dr. Threat: Yes. For many months before the end of the war, from the summer of 1918, the army had kind of grappled with accepting black nurses, and there was an initial attempt to have at least 20 black nurses enrolled at the Army Nurse Corp in July, but that ultimately failed. What actually ended up happening was the influenza outbreak of 1918 really did lead to these nurses finally being accepted. What happens is the way that nurses are accepted into the Army Nurse Corp during WWI and during WWII is that they first enroll in the Red cross reserve and it is from there that they move into the Army Nurse Corp. Once the influenza outbreak spreads, and the reality is they needed more and more nurses to help with both the soldiers that were coming home and the civilian population. This is when the Surgeon General accepted the first 18 black nurses into the Army Nurse Corp officially in late November 1918. African American US army nursesPhoto of African-American U.S. Army nurses at Camp Sherman, 1919. Photo courtesy of the David Graham Du Bois Trust, and the Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Theo Mayer: Yeah, its worth mentioning that the battle they were fighting killed more people than the war. So, it's a noble cause.

Dr. Threat: Absolutely. Well, this is one of the strange and interesting things about the story of these black nurses. Although they were desperate, and really pushed for their acceptance into the Army Nurse Corp, during the war it really took a major health epidemic to get them into the Army Nurse Corp so that they could serve their country officially, because many of these women were actually serving in unofficial capacities with either the Red Cross or they were being hired as civilian nurses who were then working in military hospitals. There was a small group of black student nurses from the Tuskegee School of Nursing who ended up at Camp Sheridan, Illinois to help the influenza patients there during the early part of 1919. So you have that as well. There were many more nurses than just these 18 that were ultimately serving in military hospitals, but it's the 18 that we know were finally inducted into the Army Nurse Corp. 

Theo Mayer: I understand that some accounts of these women only list 9 nurses who served at Camp Sherman, Ohio. Tell us about the discovery of the others.

Dr. Threat: There are actually, and this is just a little quirk, there are actually two sets of 9 nurses serving each at both Camp Sherman, Ohio and Camp Grant, Illinois. So, there were actually two groups of nurses who were officially inducted. We more about the Camp Sherman nurses because there is a lot more written about them, and we have a couple of the nurses themselves who served at Camp Sherman who would go on to write their own memoirs and who stay in nursing for many years so they continuously tell their story, but there are another 9 set of nurses who end up being at Camp Grant, Illinois and their names are widely available if people look for them, because their names were published in places like The American Journal of Nursing, Nursing World...all of these professional nursing magazines did list these nurses when they were inducted and where they went, but if you don't know where to look, it is hard to find them.

Theo Mayer: Is there a book that's been written about all this?charissathreat nurshingcivilrights

Dr. Threat: There are a couple earlier books. Darlene Clark Hine is a historian, an emeritus professor at this point, who wrote one of the first well known books about black nurses and the racial challenges they face in a book called "Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and the Nursing Profession." And she talks extensively about black nurses and their fight for professional recognition and as part of that conversation she does talk about these nurses who did serve in WWI, but there is not a one single large scale book that's been written just about the black nurses in WWI. They are usually included in other books, like my own, as part of a larger story about racial conflict and civil rights activism.

Theo Mayer: Well, what's the name of your book?

Dr. Threat: So my book is titled, "Nursing Civil Rights: Race and Gender in the U.S. Army Nurse Corp." It focuses largely on WWII through Vietnam, but it does also talk about WWI and it really highlights both the racial conflict that was happening within the Army Nurse Corp, but also interesting enough, white male nurses who were also barred from acceptance in the Army Nurse Crop, really until the 1950. It highlights kind of both conversations about race but also gender in the nursing profession and with the military.

Theo Mayer: So from your point of view, what are the most important elements our listeners should take away from the story?

Dr. Threat: For me, I think the listeners should understand that black nurses were fully aware and wanting to participate in WWI. That when calls came, they were available and they did step up to the plate. There's one black female nurse who's served in WWI, Eileen Coal, who writes...she says, "We had no opportunity for service above and beyond call, but we also served with dignity when we could." Just kind of my paraphrase of what she wrote.

Theo Mayer: Well thank you, that is a great story.

Dr. Threat: Thank you.

Theo Mayer: Dr. Charissa Threat, Associate Professor of History at Chapman University where she researches and teaches classes in U.S. And African American history, war, and society. To learn more, we have links for you in the podcast notes.