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A Start to Healing

One hundred years ago, the flu pandemic had an unexpected side effect: a civil rights breakthrough for black nurses. In a new book, a UMD professor will tell their stories.

By Sala Levin ’10

Aileen Cole, army nurse

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Aileen Cole was one of the first black members of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps , serving during the height of the 1918 flu pandemic.

In October 1918, as influenza was tearing across the globe—killing at least 50 million before its brutal reign ended—three young American Red Cross nurses arrived at a makeshift camp near Charleston, W.Va., to take care of stricken miners. Inside a high school-turned-hospital, the scene was stomach-turning. Every one of the patients was lying lifeless on his cot, a baggage tag hanging from each right wrist. The nurses were too late. “I’ll bet you young nurses had your hearts set on going overseas, wearing romantic Red Cross uniforms, to nurse our soldiers, didn’t you?” an officer later taunted them.

The nurses—Aileen Cole, Clara Rollins and Susie Boulding—had long wanted to be Red Cross nurses, to contribute to the war effort. But as black women, they’d been rejected by an organization and military that didn’t want them. It was only as the pandemic raged, and soldiers and other patients languished in military hospitals and other encampments—and as doctors and nurses themselves succumbed to the virus—that the Red Cross and Army begrudgingly accepted them.

Cole, Rollins and Boulding were among the 18 women who served as the first black nurses in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during and immediately following World War I, when a public health crisis unexpectedly advanced the cause of civil rights.

The unsung stories of these and other Red Cross nurses are the foundation of “Finding New Fronts: How World War I Service Shaped a Generation of U.S. Nurses,” a forthcoming book by Marian Moser Jones, associate professor of family science, as well as an April article in the American Journal of Public Health marking the centennial of the nurses’ service.

Already the author of a book on the history of the Red Cross, Jones was a clear choice to solve a mystery that fell into the lap of some National Institutes of Health archivists. They’d been contacted by a doctor from Potomac, Md., who had discovered what looked like a World War I nurse’s diary among his late wife’s belongings. Baffled, the archivists turned to Jones—who had done a post-doc at NIH—to figure out who the diarist was.

That quest turned into a 3,000-mile road trip, as she decided to focus her next book on World War I nurses. Going from state to state, archive to archive, driving as far west as North Dakota, Jones collected letters and diaries from nurses who served inthe Great War—and realized most of them were from white women.

Jones knew then that any book about World War I nurses would have to include the banning of black nurses. “It wasn’t just incidental,” she says.

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