A Brief History of African-American Navy Nurses

Story Number: NNS140224-13Release Date: 2/24/2014 1:50:00 PM
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By Andre Sobocinski, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Public Affairs

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (NNS) -- From the dawn of the U.S. Navy, African-Americans have played a vital role in its history and have embodied the basic tenets of service and commitment to duty.

At the same time, the African-American experience in Naval history is a story about breaking barriers, living through a segregated service, and overcoming limitations of opportunity on the path to what Adm. Elmo "Bud" Zumwalt called "One Navy."

During the Civil War, African-Americans comprised 25 percent of the total Naval force; not included in this statistic were five African-American women (Alice Kennedy, Sarah Kinno, Ellen Campbell, Betsy Young, and Dennise Downs) who served as nurses aboard the Navy's "first" hospital ship, USS Red Rover in 1863. Although only volunteers, it is remarkable to note that for over the next century these women would represent the Navy's only African-American nurses.

Mixed crews were common in the Navy until "Jim Crow" state laws become the policy of the service. From 1922 to 1942, African-Americans were barred from serving as anything but mess attendants or stewards.

Four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt called for the end of the Navy's discriminatory policies. On April 7, 1942, then Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox announced that the Navy would start accepting enlistment of African-Americans in ratings other than messmen. By 1943, African-Americans were finally allowed to serve as hospital corpsmen; and by March 1944 African-Americans -following the lead of the "Golden Thirteen"-were allowed to serve as dentists, physicians and Hospital Corps officers.

In October 1944, African-American women were permitted to serve as reserve officers in administrative capacities. Ironically, the Navy Nurse Corps, which had long battled for gender equality within the Navy establishment, would be the last to open its doors to African-Americans.

Since being established in May 1908 the Navy Nurse Corps had a history of barring married women, single mothers, and men into its ranks on a permanent basis.

And although African-American nurses were not officially prohibited from entering the services after 1944, they were often "overlooked" in Army, Navy and Red Cross recruiting drives until early 1945.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mable Keaton Staupers, executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses were among the most vocal critics of the implicit ban on African-American nurses.

A longtime advocate for racial equality in the nursing profession, Staupers wrote that military service was the responsibility for all citizens of the U.S., especially during a time of war.

On March 8, 1945, the longstanding barrier in the Navy was finally broken when a 25-year old New York-born nurse named Phyllis Mae Daley received a commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve. A graduate of Lincoln School of Nursing in New York and student of public health at Teachers College, Columbia University, Daley had previously been rejected from entering the Army Air Force. Determined to serve, Daley stated that she "knew the barriers were going to be broken down eventually and felt the more applicants, the better the chances would be for each person."

Daley's path would be soon be followed by Edith Mazie Devoe, of Washington, D.C., Helen Fredericka Turner, of Augusta, Ga., and Eula Loucille Stimley, of Centreville, Miss.

Following the war all but Devoe would leave active duty. Devoe would later make history as the first African-American nurse in the regular Navy on Jan. 6, 1948. In 1950 she would become the first African-American Navy nurse to serve outside the continental U.S. at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.

Today African-Americans comprise 30 percent of the nearly 3,000 men and women in the Navy Nurse Corps.

U.S. Navy Medicine is a global health care network of 63,000 Navy medical personnel around the world who provide high quality health care to more than one million eligible beneficiaries. Navy Medicine personnel deploy with Sailors and Marines worldwide, providing critical mission support aboard ship, in the air, under the sea and on the battlefield.

For more news from Navy Medicine, visit www.navy.mil/local/mednews/.

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