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Article ReferenceThe Eighteen of 1918–1919: Black Nurses and the Great Flu Pandemic in the United States
This article examines the role of Black American nurses during the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the aftermath of World War I. The pandemic caused at least 50 million deaths worldwide and 675 000 in the United States. It occurred during a period of pervasive segregation and racial violence, in which Black Americans were routinely denied access to health, educational, and political institutions. We discuss how an unsuccessful campaign by Black leaders for admission of Black nurses to the Red Cross, the Army Nurse Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps during World War I eventually created opportunities for 18 Black nurses to serve in the army during the pandemic and the war’s aftermath. Analyzing archival sources, news reports, and published materials, we examine these events in the context of nursing and early civil rights history. This analysis demonstrates that the pandemic incrementally advanced civil rights in the Army Nurse Corps and Red Cross, while providing ephemeral opportunities for Black nurses overall. This case study reframes the response to epidemics and other public health emergencies as potential opportunities to advance health equity. In 1918, Aileen Cole and Clara Rollins ached to become Red Cross war nurses. 1  Cole, aged 24 years, had recently passed her registration exams, and Rollins, 34, had years of nursing experience. 2  The two boarded with other nurses in a Washington, DC, brick row house near Freedmen’s Hospital, where they had all graduated from the rigorous nurse training school. The Red Cross had enrolled Cole and Rollins on paper, but had done nothing else: the US Army and Navy, for which the Red Cross served as the official recruiter, did not accept Black nurses. 3 In October, the influenza pandemic brought change. The Red Cross called up Cole, Rollins, and several other Black nurses for civilian duty, and sent them to West Virginia to battle pandemic influenza. 4  This 1918–1919 pandemic was responsible for at least 50 million deaths worldwide and 675 000 in the United States. 5  It also created opportunities for previously excluded Black nurses, including the first 18 to serve in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) between December 1918 and August 1919. 6 Although Black nurses’ roles in World War I and the pandemic have been noted by numerous historians, this article represents the first effort to move these nurses from periphery to center, and to critically analyze their struggle to serve as a seminal episode in the long and ongoing movement for civil rights and racial health equity. 7  Using archival materials, news reports, census records, and published literature, we highlight how Black nurses fulfilled a critical need for skilled care during the pandemic and the war’s aftermath, but received little recognition. We also show how nurses and Black community leaders viewed this service as a political act. We present this story as a historical case study of nursing and racism in a public health emergency, while raising transhistorical questions: Do public health emergencies spur advancements in health equity? Or do they merely allow exploitation of already-marginalized persons? Although a single case study cannot offer definitive answers, it can provide valuable insights.
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