Black Professionals and Race Consciousness: Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, 1890–1950

Preface: The Meta-Argument

Without the parallel institutions that the black professional class created, successful challenges to white supremacy would not have been possible. The formation of parallel organizations (such as the National Medical Association in 1895, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses in 1908, and the National Bar Association in 1925) proved to be far more radical, far more capable of nurturing resistance, than anyone could have anticipated in the closing decade of the nineteenth century and opening decades of the twentieth.[1] The development of the black professional class and of the educational and practice facilities in which its members were trained and worked seemed to imply acquiescence in segregation. But such institutions never silenced internal dissent. Ideological tensions between parallelism and integrationism haunted black discourse throughout the twentieth century.

Black professionals identified the Achilles’ heel of white supremacy: Segregation provided blacks the chance, indeed, the imperative, to develop a range of distinct institutions that they controlled. Maneuvering through their organizations and institutions, they exploited that fundamental weakness in the “separate but equal” system permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.[2] For all their violence, lynchings, prejudice, and hatred, white supremacists could not exterminate black people. The white supremacists’ major goal, after all, was to maintain a pliable, exploitable labor force that would remain permanently in a subordinate place.

Several questions help us frame the evolution of black professional race and class consciousness between 1890 and 1950. How did circumstances, national and global events, and the legal actions and assaults of white supremacists determine black resistance tactics? Did separate development amount to accommodation to hierarchies of economic, political, professional, and social power? Did parallelism impede the long struggle for equality of opportunity? The complementary factors of racism and sexism, of exclusion and segregation, imposed on them by white society and operating in their professions compelled black physicians, nurses, and lawyers to create parallel institutions in order to maintain themselves and to ensure the survival of the greater black community. I argue that parallel institutions offered black Americans not only private space to buttress battered dignity, nurture positive self-images, sharpen skills, and demonstrate expertise. These safe havens sustained relationships and wove networks across communities served. Thus, within their professional preserves, black physicians, nurses, and lawyers debated and improvised innovative resistance strategies.

Admittedly, this was forced agency, the best hand they had in an all-around bad deal. Granted, most black professionals were perhaps motivated primarily by self-interest, but at critical junctures their individual self-interest and that of their class merged with the interests, desires, and aspirations of their oppressed race. Uniquely positioned by virtue of their education, respectability, and expertise and the authority that they enjoyed in the black community, only the professionals could open the crack in the edifice of white supremacy that the black community later poured through during the 1950s and 1960s.

Differences between the medical and legal professions profoundly influenced the form and style of black professionals’ social-change activism. The very public nature of the legal profession made black lawyers more important than their comparatively small numbers suggest. There could be no black courts of law. As a result, black lawyers moved back and forth between the larger white society and parallel institutions. For decades insurgent black lawyers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stormed the legal barricades to take down Plessy v. Ferguson. Black medical men, in contrast, generally practiced in all-black settings, outnumbered lawyers, and initially possessed higher socioeconomic status within local communities. They were slower to repudiate parallelism than the lawyers. The pivotal transformation of physicians’ and nurses’ consciousness and activism, from advocacy of parallelism to a demand for full inclusion, occurred during World War Il as they struggled to desegregate the medical agencies of the War Department.

My purpose is twofold: first, to chart the transformation in black professionals’ class and race consciousness during the World War II era; second, to reclaim for the historical record foundational moments and key individuals scarcely recognized and rarely analyzed.[3] The leaders and struggles of the proto–civil rights campaigns helped lay the foundation for the classic civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The black professional class was essential to the revolutionary transformation of African Americans and America.

Internal Dissent: Desegregating Military Medicine, World War II

The Surgeon General is opposed to mixing white and negro medical officers in the same unit. . . . the majority of the negro doctors are commissioned or will be commissioned in the lowest grade.
—Brig. Gen. William E. Shedd, U.S. Army, 1940[4]

The present Army Medical program contemplates the use of Negro doctors, dentists and nurses only in station hospitals and only at those stations where segregated wards are provided for Negro troops. . . . The Army Medical Department is unwilling to sanction the use of Negro doctors, dentists, and nurses in any situation in which white soldiers might be placed under their care.
—William H. Hastie, dean, Howard University Law School, 1941[5]

Negro women and their organizations have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to offer leadership and support to this struggle of the racial group. . . . Now, with large numbers of our men in the armed forces.
—Mary McLeod Bethune, president, National Council of Negro Women, 1944[6]

The black professional class faced a formidable foe in the United States War Department. Its commitment to racial segregation in the establishment of medical services and facilities energized black physicians and nurses to an unprecedented degree. They struggled throughout World War II to desegregate American military medicine. During the prewar mobilization period, 1940–1941, leaders of the National Medical Association (NMA), remembering the segregation of black soldiers and officers during World War I, queried the War Department about their status. In a new war, would black physicians be integrated into the medical corps or relegated to practice in separate facilities?

In a 1940 speech before the NMA’s House of Delegates, G. Hamilton Francis underscored the NMA’s position and concerns:

Our nation is again preparing to defend itself against aggression from without. We remember the call many years ago that the Negro joined ranks and served in every capacity in which he was permitted to serve. Today, we are ready and willing to contribute all of our skill and energy and to wholeheartedly enlist our services as members of the medical profession, but we must be permitted to take our right places, as evidenced by our training, experience and ability.
He warned, “There must not be again a repetition of the discriminations of the previous defense program.” Wary of repeating history, black physicians requested a meeting with War Department officials to discuss plans for their procurement and deployment.[7]

On three occasions between 1940 and 1942, a vanguard of black physicians and nurses (officers and representatives of the NMA and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, NACGN) met with War Department officials. Larry McAfee, assistant to the surgeon general of the army, recalled in 1942, “In all the conferences and correspondence with negro leaders they have insisted upon the integration of their race in the military organization as opposed to the traditional War Department policy of official segregation.” At the outset, white military officials conceded some ground, agreeing to allow black physicians and nurses to serve in professional capacities at major camps and forts.[8]

While that War Department policy guaranteed opportunity to some African American physicians and nurses, it dictated that they serve only in wards or station hospitals separate from those reserved for white people. White military officials believed “segregation without discrimination” conformed to Jim Crow practice and custom and was sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of “separate but equal.” Supporters of black parallelism and white separatism acquiesced in the War Department’s policy. But that policy underscored black professionals’ dilemma. If some embraced the policy because it afforded a measure of recognition and autonomy and appealed to their self-interest, all resented the implication of race inferiority. Moreover, white officials adamantly resisted black attempts to realign racial boundaries in military medical units. During the war official efforts to extend segregation sharpened divisions among black professionals and precipitated a decisive turn away from parallelism.

Four black professionals play leading roles in this simple yet complex war story about the desegregation of the medical departments of the U.S. military: the physician Arthur N. Vaughn of St. Louis, Missouri, president of the NMA; the physician Midian O. Bousfield of Chicago, Illinois; the nurse Mabel Staupers of New York City and Washington, D.C.; and the attorney William H. Hastie, who served as civilian aide for Negro affairs in the War Department. Although he functioned as liaison between black health care professionals and War Department officials, Hastie was no impartial mediator, but a champion of black rights.[9]

Two of the four professionals, Bousfield and Staupers, occupy center stage in the desegregation campaign. Born in Tipton, Missouri, in 1885, Bousfield earned an M.D. degree from Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago in 1909. A prominent power broker and esteemed insider, in 1935 Bousfield was elected president of the National Medical Association and thereafter became director of the Negro Health Division of the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Staupers, born in Barbados, West Indies, in 1890, had migrated with her parents to New York in 1903. After graduating from Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., Staupers worked as a private duty nurse. In 1934, Staupers became the NACGN’s first salaried executive secretary.[10]

The Struggle for Inclusion

At the first meeting of black health care professionals and War Department officials, on October 14, 1940, black physicians summarized the history of racial discrimination against black medical and enlisted men in World War I, vividly recalling the violence that white civilians directed toward black veterans who dared to travel in uniform, particularly in the South. War Department officials pledged to treat black physicians on a fair and equal basis. They carefully avoided making promises to end segregation. A War Department summary suggested that black physicians implicitly accepted the arrangement that black medical officers would be assigned to “hospitals used exclusively for negro patients.”[11]

No black nurse attended the October 1940 meeting. Nevertheless, the procurement and utilization of black nurses commanded attention. In November black nurse leaders requested a meeting with Surgeon General James C. Magee of the U.S. Army, who assured them that a few black nurses would be called to serve in the separate wards if and when there were “suitable separate messing and housing facilities for them.” Again, this provision of a niche within the “separate but equal” system seemed reasonable. Upon reflection, however, Staupers had second thoughts. She found the imposition of quotas an affront and thus objected to the military’s plan to recruit only a limited number of black nurses. She denounced the quotas. But the army flatly refused to integrate the military nursing service. As one official put it, “men who are fulfilling the same obligations, suffering the same dislocation of their private lives, and wearing the identical uniform should, within the confines of the military establishment, have the same privileges of rest and relaxation that they enjoyed at home.” In other words, the surgeon general believed that white men had the right not to be inconvenienced by the presence of black people, even black nurses and doctors.[12]

The black physician John A. Kenney, editor of the Journal of the National Medical Association, castigated the War Department, ridiculed the army’s commitment to segregation, and conveyed black bewilderment:

Is it very likely that a white soldier, lying on the battle field writhing in pain and his blood ebbing away would object to having his pains relieved and that blood flow stanched by a Negro doctor? My answer is not very likely. Then why, in the interest of this Democracy . . . does the War Department find it necessary to segregate Negro professional services to members of their own race?[13]
In the wake of these twin meetings, the surgeon general’s office quickly announced the War Department’s official policy. For the mobilization phase, the plan called for the immediate assignment of only 42 physicians, 6 dentists, and 56 nurses to the black wards of three military installations: Fort Devens in Massachusetts, Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Camp Livingston in Louisiana.[14]

In early 1941, as word of the plan percolated through the black community, opposition erupted with surprising force. William Hastie implored Undersecretary of War Robert P. Patterson to call black physicians and nurses back to the conference table along with officials from the surgeon general’s office for another round of discussion concerning “all medical and hospitalization problems involved in the addition of 80,000 Negro troops to the Army.” Patterson acquiesced, noting to Surgeon General Magee, “it seems to me that it might be well to call a suggested conference at an early date.” Magee balked at Patterson’s willingness to heed Hastie’s concerns and declared such a meeting unnecessary. The obdurate Magee railed that military affairs and policies “should not be unduly influenced by the supposed interest of civilian groups, no matter how patriotic their purpose may be.” He did not “feel justified in recommending any more detailed plan for the negro medical service.”[15]

Attorney William Henry Hastie, left, with Undersecretary of War Robert P. Patterson. Hastie served as civilian aide for Negro affairs to the secretary of war from November 1940 until January 1943. He fought for the integration of black nurses into the armed forces nurse corps and for the desegregation of the entire U.S. military. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, LC-USW3-001258-E.

The military is a closeted system characterized by well-defined lines of authority and hierarchy. Patterson adroitly overrode Magee’s intransigence. He mused that perhaps the army should increase the number of black physicians and dentists and speculated that the War Department needed “from 200 to 300 negro doctors and from 50 to 60 negro dentists.”[16] Although increasing the number of black professionals in the army was clearly anathema to Magee’s way of thinking, he capitulated. Shortly thereafter, the surgeon general and War Department officials convened the third meeting with Hastie and the leaders of organizations of black health care professionals.

Magee set an icy tone at that meeting, held in March 1941. He reiterated the War Department’s procurement objective. Neither silenced nor intimidated by his insolence, black physicians raised issues ranging from compensation for civilian black physicians who administered physical examinations to draftees to a demand for equal service on induction boards. Yet, on one point they yielded. They acknowledged that it would be difficult to integrate medical installations in the South, but they insisted that the War Department end segregation in military facilities in all other regions, especially at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. They firmly disapproved of the humiliating treatment accorded black nurses and insisted that the War Department and the surgeon general’s office eliminate quotas and allow black nurses to treat wounded servicemen regardless of race.[17]

Undaunted, Magee quickly dispatched black criticisms. He admitted that he personally opposed mixed induction boards because they might “lead to lack of harmony and resultant inefficiency.” He replied to black physicians’ charge that “the extension of the segregated ward plan to many areas of the country [outside of the South] would represent an unfortunate reversal of a current trend” by exclaiming that it was not the function of his office “to force integration upon the nation.” The surgeon general declared that the majority of white Americans would be offended by any “system whereby white patients must be treated by negro doctors by compulsion.” As to black people being offended by segregation, Magee demurred. “Integration,” he said, “would result in offending at least 90%” of the population. The meeting accomplished nothing. Hastie apprised Patterson that the insolent surgeon general “was unswerving.” The civilian aide ruminated that only the intervention of the secretary of war could modify the “segregation without discrimination” policy of the Army Medical Department.[18]

Magee needed fortification to buttress his resolve. As the embers of black indignation smoldered in the press, he summoned his colleagues for advice. Should the army revise the plan? Top officials responded, offering him advice and rationalizations. Powerful colonels, majors, and generals questioned the intellectual capacity of black people. One official cited the results of army intelligence tests as proving that black people were mentally inferior to whites and were ill equipped to handle technical aspects of medical care. He maintained that “it is not expected that such people should be used in the care of the sick, except for those very few who may be employed in the care of the sick of their own race at those places where a colored medical service has been established.” Another officer suggested a counterattack: “It would be a good thing to pin Judge Hastie down and actually have him ascertain if the colored people have available for services such large numbers with excellent qualifications which he insists they have.” They unanimously urged Magee and the War Department to “stick to [their] guns.”[19]

As relations between black physicians, dentists, and nurses and the War Department reached an impasse, antidiscrimination militancy within the black community escalated. A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters launched the March on Washington movement (MOWM), which captured the attention of the black community as it provoked the consternation of the executive branch of the federal government. The MOWM culminated in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 that outlawed racial discrimination in the defense industry and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunging the nation into World War II, the recruitment and assignment of black physicians, dentists, and nurses gained urgency. A statement by Secretary of War Henry Stimson in the Pittsburgh Courier on February 21, 1942, stoked black resistance. “At the specific request of the National Medical Association,” he announced, “separate wards are being set up for the care of Negro patients exclusively where the numbers of Negro patients and availability of Negro doctors and nurses justify this action.”[20]

The next day NMA leaders, in a rousing refutation of Stimson’s statement (sent to the surgeon general, the secretary of war, and the president, with copies distributed to editors of the black press) declared that “at no time did Dr. Vaughn or any other official of the National Medical Association discuss or approve any segregated hospital plan to be staffed by Negro officers.” On the contrary, they added, the NMA “was the first body to insist on integration, not segregation.” But the NMA had in fact tacitly agreed that black physicians in the military might work in segregated wards and hospitals—they had been willing to accept inclusion with restrictions if it meant an end to exclusion. Once their perfidy became public knowledge, the NMA leaders embraced a face-saving course. Chagrined, they seized the moral high ground: “We do not and will not subscribe to separation or segregation of any race of the American People; most certainly not to ours.” The NMA vowed its commitment to an inclusive democracy: “We subscribe whole heartedly to Democracy—not ‘white’ democracy; not ‘black’ democracy; but to the democracy which says ‘All men are created free and equal and are born with certain inalienable rights,’ yes we subscribe to the Democracy which lives up to these ideals. This and only this, is that for which men live and die.”[21]

The All-Black Station Hospital

Disconcerted by the NMA’s vigorous denials, the surgeon general’s office calculated a devastating defense to halt the protest momentum and to undermine black professional solidarity. Initially, it circulated summaries of the three previous meetings and released explanations that “in order to satisfy their demand for an opportunity to practice their professions and yet to keep within the War Department policy, certain wards were set aside for negro Medical Department units to care for negro soldiers at Fort Bragg and Camp Livingston.” The surgeon general’s office asserted that it had given every consideration to the officers of the National Medical Association. One staff officer wryly observed that while the surgeon general’s office had met the NMA’s request for professional assignment, it had evidently not done so “in the manner desired, namely integration.”[22]

To divide and disorient black physicians, the War Department made a propitiatory move that proved to be a tactical blunder. It announced the establishment of a general hospital at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, devoted entirely to the care of black patients under the authority of black medical personnel, the only black-staffed hospital in the United States military. Then, before the NMA leaders recovered from that shock, the War Department attacked with a second announcement that Midian O. Bousfield had accepted command of the Fort Huachuca hospital. Lieutenant Colonel Bousfield, without consulting the NMA leadership, assumed command there and quickly appointed black physicians to head its departments. [23] In spite of sustained involvement in black medical professional issues, including a term as NMA president, the ambitious and accomplished Bousfield was unprepared for the depths of black disaffection and anger that greeted his appointment. Bousfield had simply accepted a proffered niche within “separate but equal,” but the way he did it seemed to lessen black faith in the efficacy of that strategy. Indeed, relations between black physicians and nurses and the War Department plummeted after the surgeon general’s announcements. Fort Huachuca presented the classic quandary: Did acceptance and support of the facility argue a capitulation to Jim Crow? Roy Wilkins, editor of the Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, reported, “By now it is common knowledge that the hospital at Fort Huachuca, manned throughout by Negro personnel, was set up in the heat of considerable controversy in Negro medical circles.”[24]

At an April 1946 ceremony Col. Midian O. Bousfield receives the Legion of Merit from Brig. Gen. John A. Rogers for meritorious services as commanding officer at Station Hospital 1, Fort Huachuca, Arizona, from June 1942 to November 1945. A press release that accompanied this photograph praised Bousfield for “play[ing] an important part in the excellent racial relationship at this installation, where mixed racial population required a tolerant and understanding leader.” Courtesy National Archives, Signal Corps photo # 664-33-1.

The leaders of the NMA felt humiliated. How did they punish the first black colonel-in the U.S. Army Medical Corps? In an unprecedented action, they ostracized and censured him. On April 15, 1942, the NMA sent a memorandum to President Roosevelt (copies were sent to Secretary of War Stimson and to Surgeon General Magee) repudiating Bousfield’s undercover, unilateral negotiations. “We have men of merit, yet who are honest, and not self-seeking,” they declared, and they attached to the memorandum a document simply titled “National Medical Association Censures M. O. Bousfield.” The NMA labeled Bousfield’s actions “dictatorial” and excoriated him for taking the “entire responsibility on himself in the selection of the medical personnel.” Moreover, the NMA denounced the War Department’s establishment of the station hospital at Fort Huachuca without prior consultation. The NMA’s Board of Trustees preferred “open discussion, open covenants, openly arrived at,” and challenged the military to “replace the policy of ‘back door covenant,’ secretly arrived at with some single handpicked individual.” Clearly, Bousfield had malpracticed in black professional-class politics. The War Department and the surgeon general’s office exacerbated NMA leaders’ wounded pride and summarily dismissed their objections: “any misunderstanding or lack of consideration for any members of committees he [Bousfield] may have been associated with is not a concern of the War Department.”[25]

It remains unclear why Bousfield accepted the surgeon general’s invitation to head the all-black hospital at Fort Huachuca. He clearly extracted personal satisfaction from being promoted to colonel, referring to it as “a triumph.” In correspondence with his War Department supporters, Bousfield emphasized the hope that the controversial venture was an opportunity to prove black ability. He confided, “If we prove that Negro doctors can run a hospital we will have vindicated our sponsors and perhaps contribute something to race relations, as well as the war effort. We want to do bigger things.”[26]

Bousfield had scant opportunity to prove black ability or adequate resources to do “bigger things.” He soon discovered just how little advance planning the War Department had invested in the project: “When we arrived here there was some dismay on the Post. Apparently, there hadn’t been much advance knowledge that a group of unknown Negro doctors, with relatively high rank, were descending upon them like so many birds of a certain kind.” Bousfield acknowledged, “We really were left to sink or swim.” He found the situation “very trying.” Undoubtedly, the reaction of the black medical profession placed added stress on Bousfield. (In 1945 he retired from the army and in February 1948 died of cardiac arrest.)[27]

As this dispute unfolded, William H. Hastie resigned from his post as civilian aide for Negro affairs. The incident precipitating Hastie’s resignation had nothing to do with Fort Huachuca. Hastie specifically objected to the Army Air Forces’ decision to establish a segregated officer candidate training school. Like the NMA, he had not been consulted. In an open letter published in the Chicago Defender, February 6, 1943, Hastie characterized the army’s action as a move to reinforce racial segregation in the military.[28] Hastie’s resignation resonated. It acquired symbolic power. In one bold stroke, Hastie dramatized the choice that the whole black professional class confronted. In contrast to Bousfield, Hastie demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice personal advantage in pursuit of a grander objective—complete integration. He underscored the importance of fighting to end racial segregation in American public institutions.

Mabel Keaton Staupers, the first executive director (1934–1946) and last president (1949–1951) of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN). Staupers led the fight to integrate the armed forces nurse corps during World War II and presided over the dissolution of the NACGN. In 1951 she received the Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mabel Staupers Papers. Courtesy Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

Although the War Department and the surgeon general’s office may have assumed that segregation at military installations was secured by Hastie’s resignation and the establishment of Fort Huachuca, Mabel Staupers thought differently. Black nurses occupied the bottom rung in the medical professional hierarchy.[29] Yet the leaders of that group of professionals sustained a spirited opposition to military medical segregation even as some nurses joined Bousfield and his compatriots. Staupers straddled the ideological divide between parallelism and segregation on the one hand and full inclusion on the other.

As disgruntled black physicians fought among themselves, Staupers continued to struggle to end the unfair and humiliating treatment of black military nurses. Unveiling her facility for making strategic use of the black media, she quietly enlisted the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and influential white nurse leaders. Furthermore, she drew on the vast reservoir of support from organized black clubwomen, their sororities, and Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women. During a private meeting with the First Lady, she rhetorically asked if the practice of assigning black women nurses to the care of German prisoners of war was intended to delimit the role of the black nurse. She insisted, “When our women hear of the great need for nurses in the Army and when they enter the Service it is with the high hopes that they will be used to nurse sick and wounded soldiers who are fighting our country’s enemies and not primarily to care for these enemies.”[30]

Staupers explained her interracial mobilization strategy of resistance in correspondence with Hastie. She conceded that all-black protest, such as that of Randolph and the March on Washington movement, was effective in some instances. But now she desired to devise different tactics in order to “create in the minds of the people in the War Department the feeling that white people do not need protection in order to save themselves from being cared for by Negro personnel.”[31]

As 1944 faded into 1945, the prospects of improving the status of black nursing seemed bleak. And then everything changed. In early January of the new year, Norman T. Kirk, the surgeon general of the United States Army, made a statement that gave Staupers an opening. Kirk announced to a crowd of three hundred nurses, politicians, and private citizens assembled at the Hotel Pierre in New York City that the army needed nurses. He thought it advisable, therefore, to institute a draft of nurses. Staupers was in the audience. She rose and confronted Kirk, “If nurses are needed so desperately, why isn’t the Army using colored nurses?” She continued, “Of 9,000 registered Negro nurses the Army has taken 247, the Navy takes none.” Kirk, visibly unnerved according to black press reports, corrected her figures, “There are 7,000 Negro nurses.” He also asserted, “I believe that the average share of colored nurses in the Army is equal to the total number of Negro troops.” The Boston Guardian’s editor mused, “It is difficult to find calm words to describe the folly which color prejudice assumes in the desperate shortage of nurses.”[32]

With alacrity, Staupers harnessed public anger and mobilized a broad protest constituency. She urged black nurses, women’s groups, and white allies to fight this denial of equal opportunity. When President Roosevelt announced his support for the enactment of legislation amending the Selective Service Act of 1940 to draft nurses, Staupers had a clear target. In a barrage of press releases, she exhorted, “We stress again for the Negro nurses all over the country that they rally now as never before.”[33] And rally they did. She artfully exploited the hypocrisy of calling for a draft of nurses while excluding large numbers of black nurses. This was too much for many Americans to abide.

An avalanche of telegrams buried the War Department. On January 20, 1945, Kirk caved in, and the army opened the Army Nurse Corps to all nurses. On January 25, Rear Adm. W. J. C. Agnew of the navy declared that the Navy Nurse Corps no longer rejected black women. A few weeks later Phyllis Daley was inducted into the Navy Nurse Corps, becoming the first black woman to break the navy color barrier. The War Department dropped all plans to draft nurses.[34]

The black community heralded Staupers. The NAACP awarded her its prestigious Spingarn Medal in honor of her leadership in this World War II struggle to desegregate military medicine. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the U.S. military. The Korean War witnessed the actual desegregation of the military. In 1951 Staupers presided over the dissolution of the NACGN, black nurses having won membership in the American Nurses Association.[35]

This campaign underscored the invaluable significance of black women’s activism. In the final months of World War II, the struggle of black professionals to end discrimination, segregation, and quotas in military medicine became a fight orchestrated by black nurses. Of the professionals engaged in that struggle, black nurses bore a heavier burden of oppression than those who suffered only sexism or only racism. They endured both forms of oppression simultaneously. Their gender and race combined to reinforce the wall of segregation and discrimination that locked them into subordinate positions within nursing and in the military. They negotiated mine-fields of power within the gendered and racial politics of military medicine. At hospitals ostensibly controlled by black men, black women complained of not receiving the promotions and ranks they deserved or desired. For Mabel Staupers and professional black nurses, the load was indeed “too heavy.”[36] They had no choice but to continue to fight Jim Crow and the myth of “separate but equal.”


World War II was a watershed in the history of the black professional class. It brought to the forefront ideological tensions that reverberated throughout the black community. The struggles of black professionals to carve a niche for themselves within “separate but equal” gave way to a determination to end Jim Crow. Their tactics changed as the War Department blundered and humiliated them.

In 1940 John A. Kenney spoke for the majority of black physicians when he testified to an abiding American nationalism. He patriotically proclaimed, “Before the battle lines are drawn it is timely that we call the attention of those in authority to the fact that there are no fifth columnists, no bolsheviks in the Negro Race. We are with our government. Every one of these twelve million Negroes is needed in some capacity Now to help this country to prepare to resist the common enemy.”[37] As the war progressed, serving the country acquired a deeper, more nuanced meaning. Preserving freedom and protecting democracy demanded that black professionals resist the enemy within as well as without. In the campaign to desegregate military medicine, black physicians and health care personnel began by accommodating themselves to “separate but equal” and ended by calling for its demise. The War Department’s establishment of Fort Huachuca hospital and its clandestine negotiations with Bousfield triggered the transformation in the objectives of their struggle. Black physicians were no longer satisfied with occupying a niche within “separate but equal.” Following Hastie’s resignation and Mabel Staupers’s masterly intervention, black professionals made the death of Jim Crow the prize to watch and to win.

Many diverse contributories flow into the ocean of social change. Historians must revise the time line and bring into history those less prominent and less visible contributors whose struggles forged foundational moments in the long movement for black liberation. There are many more events and individuals worthy of historical investigation. The study of the civil rights odyssey of diverse segments in communities of African Americans is far from exhausted. The maneuvers of black professionals to end segregation in military medicine expanded and enriched the arsenal of protest strategies that equipped activists in the classic civil rights movement, the one so well studied by historians, sociologists, and popular writers: the strategic use of the media, appeals to diverse publics, dramatic confrontations with white authority, cultivation of relations with high-ranking white leaders, behind-the-scenes negotiations with white adversaries, avowal of the principles of democracy, demonstration of intellectual and professional competence, and the invocation of the rhetoric of moral outrage against white supremacy.

This World War II story illuminates the hidden struggle of obscure physicians and nurses in the war against human degradation. To repeat its central lesson: Understanding the proto–civil rights movements is fundamental to the reconstruction of the origins of the classic civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Thus I invite the future generation of historians to identify and revisit other foundational moments and deeply to penetrate the layers of our country’s past in order to bring into the bright light of history all those whose struggles and resistance made freedom more than a dream. We have work to do.


Darlene Clark Hine is the John A. Hannah Professor of American History at Michigan State University. This article is a revised version of the presidential address delivered to the convention of the Organization of American Historians in Washington on April 12, 2002.

I am profoundly grateful to a number of scholars and colleagues for their thoughtful comments on various drafts of this presentation. Special thanks to William C. Hine, Aldon D. Morris, John Dittmer, Gordon Stewart, Peter Vinten-Johansen, Stanley Harrold, James D. Anderson, Leslie Moch, Todd Savitt, Pamela Smoot, Erik Hofstee, and Jacqueline McLeod, and to my graduate students, Marshanda Smith, Monique Chism, and Yasuhiro Okada. I am grateful to the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) for the space and time needed to prepare this essay. I am especially pleased to acknowledge the generous fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that facilitated my stay at CASBS. I would also like to thank the Richard D. McKinzie Symposium at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and my colleagues Deborah Gray White and Joe Trotter for their comments on the talk I presented at the symposium.

Readers may contact Hine at <[email protected]>.</[email protected]>

1 On the founding and history of the National Medical Association (NMA), National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, and National Bar Association, see Vanessa Northington Gamble, Making a Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920–1945 (New York, 1995), 35–69; Darlene Clark Hine, Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890–1950 (Bloomington, 1989), 94–107; and J. Clay Smith Jr., Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944 (Philadelphia, 1993), 556–85.

2 Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

3 I am suggesting the need for new histories of the black professional class and studies of individuals within specific professions that parallel the excellent civil rights movement studies of local community activism and leaders. See Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York, 1984), 120–38; John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana, 1994), 73–76; and James R. Ralph Jr., Northern Protest: Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 1–6.

4 William E. Shedd,”Additional Memorandum for the Chief of Staff: Plan for utilization of negro officers, nurses and enlisted men in the Medical Department, 1940–1941,” Jan. 22, 1941, 291.0-300, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), RG 112 (National Archives, Washington, D.C.). The records may have been moved to the Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Maryland. For a general study, see Neil A. Wynn, The Afro-American and the Second World War (New York, 1975).

5 William H. Hastie, report to the undersecretary of war, March 13, 1941, 291.0-300, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army).

6 Mary McLeod Bethune, “Certain Unalienable Rights,” 1944, in Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine Smith (Bloomington, 1999), 27. For Mary McLeod Bethune’s views on black participation in the war mobilization, see Mary McLeod Bethune to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nov. 27, 1939, ibid., 236–40; Bethune to Eleanor Roosevelt, July 10, 1941, ibid., 240–41; and Mary McLeod Bethune, “The Negro and National Defense,” Aug. 3, 1941, ibid., 241–44. For additional writings by black women concerning resistance during the World War II era, see Maureen Honey, ed., Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II (Columbia, Mo., 1999); and Charity Adams Earley, One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC (College Station, 1989).

7 G. Hamilton Francis, “Annual Address of the Speaker of the House of Delegates,” Journal of the National Medical Association, 32 (Sept. 1940), 227–28.

8 Mabel K. Staupers, No Time for Prejudice: A Story of the Integration of Negroes in Nursing in the United States (New York, 1961), 17, 40–45; Larry McAfee to the adjutant general, March 9, 1942, 291.0, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army).

9 Smith, Emancipation, 51–52. See also Gilbert Ware, William H. Hastie: Grace under Pressure (New York, 1984). I am grateful to Professor Antonio Holland of Lincoln University for information regarding Dr. Arthur N. Vaughn’s civil rights activities in St. Louis, Missouri.

10 Adelaide James Ward, “Midian Othello Bousfield (1885–1948),” in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, ed. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (New York, 1982), 51–52; Mabel K. Staupers, “Story of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses,” American Journal of Nursing, 51 (April 1951), 222–23.

11 For a summary, from the black perspective, of the points discussed at the October 1940 meeting, see Roscoe C. Giles, Clarence H. Payne, and Robert M. Hedrick, “Reply to Press Release of Honorable Stimson,” Feb. 20, 1942, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). Summary of October 1940 meeting, NMA and surgeon general, attached to Jan. 15, 1941, memorandum, ibid. The adjutant general endorsed the recommendation that black health care personnel be assigned to separate black wards in station hospitals on December 13, 1940. See William W. Dick to the Under Secretary of War, “Proposed Conference on Negro Health and Hospitalization,” Jan. 15, 1941, ibid. A. N. Vaughn to Dick, Oct. 22, 1940, ibid.

12 Hine, Black Women in White, 169–70.

13 John A. Kenney, “A Plea for Equality in Our National Preparedness Program,” Journal of the National Medical-Association, 32 (July 1940), 170. John A. Kenney later editorialized, “In no uncertain terms, and in all places, the [NMA liaison] Committee has pointed out the discrimination suffered by members of the Negro Medical Profession in World War I, and urged that these not be repeated now.” John A. Kenney, “Our Liaison Committee,” ibid. (Nov. 1940), 254.

14 H.D. Offutt, “Memorandum: Negro Personnel,” Dec. 30, 1940, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army). The plan detailed the procurement quotas: 132 physicians, 12 dentists, and 184 nurses to be assigned where 100 or more black patients were expected. The War Department declared “this personnel [was] to be placed on duty on wards set aside for negro patients and where separate housing facilities are available for negro personnel.” William E. Shedd, “Memorandum for the Chief of Staff,” Jan. 15, 1941, ibid.; Shedd, “Additional Memorandum for the Chief of Staff,” ibid. When individuals in the army’s Personnel Division attempted to modify the plan to allow black physicians to treat white officers of black units, the surgeon general objected. He emphatically declared that “in negro units officered by white personnel the attached medical officer personnel should be white.” Albert Love to Col. James Wharton, May 5, 1941, ibid.

15 William H. Hastie to Robert P. Patterson, Jan. 10, 1941, ibid.; Patterson to the Surgeon General, “Proposed Conference on Negro Health and Hospitalization,” Jan. 11, 1941, ibid.; James C. Magee to Patterson, Jan. 15, 1941, ibid. Striking a defensive note, James C. Magee insisted that, “In the future, as in the past, every patient in Army hospitals will receive, without any possibility of discrimination of any character, the very best professional care that the Medical Department personnel, material and facilities will permit.” Ibid.

16 Robert P. Patterson, “Memorandum for the Surgeon General,” Feb. 10, 1941, ibid.; Patterson to the Surgeon General, Feb. 24, 1941, ibid. See also Keith E. Eiler, Mobilizing America: Robert P. Patterson and the War Effort, 1940–1945 (Ithaca, 1997).

17 “Resume of the Minutes of the meeting of the National Medical Association Representatives with the Surgeon General,” March 7, 1941, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army); Hastie to Patterson, March 13, 1941, ibid.

18 “Resume of the Minutes of the meeting of the National Medical Association Representatives with the Surgeon General,” March 7, 1941, ibid.; Hastie to Patterson, March 13, 1941, ibid.

19 Love to Wharton, May 5, 1941, ibid.; Larry B. McAfee to the Assistant Chief of Staff, “Activation of Medical-Companies, Sanitary, Negro Personnel,” June 19, 1941, ibid.; Arthur B. Welsh, “Memorandum for: General Love, Report of Conference Conducted by Lt. Col. James E. Wharton,” April 29, 1941, ibid.

20 William H. Harris, Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–1937 (Urbana, 1977), 225; Roscoe C. Giles, Clarence H. Payne, and Robert M. Hedrick to Henry L. Stimson, Feb. 10, 1942, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army); Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 21, 1942, p. 4.

21 Giles, Payne, and Hedrick to Stimson, Feb. 20, 1942, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army); Board of Trustees of the National Medical Association, Chicago, Illinois, statement, Feb. 20, 1942, ibid.; Negro Personnel, 1944, HD: 291.2, ibid.

22 McAfee to the Adjutant General, March 9, 1942, ibid.

23 Durand G. Hall, “Memorandum: Approval of Pool of Colored Officers at Fort Huachuca to Colonel Wikert,” March 20, 1943, ibid.; “Telephonic approval by Colonel Daniel J. Sheehan, Medical Corp Training Division, Surgeon General Office, from Colonel Hasbrouck, G.S.C., Headquarters, Army Services Forces” (endorsement on Hall’s memo), ibid. See also E. R. Whitehurst to the Chief of Military Personnel, “Assignment of Colored Medical and Dental Personnel,” Feb. 16, 1943, ibid.; Hall to Wikert, March 20, 1943, ibid.; Cornelius C. Smith Jr., Fort Huachuca: The Story of a Frontier Post (Washington, 1976), 307. A black physician who was briefly stationed at Fort Huachuca in 1943 was greatly relieved to leave, declaring, “The stay at Fort Huachuca was depressing. The venereal disease rate among the soldiers was more than double that of some other camps and ‘the hook’ [prostitute] village was just outside of the military grounds. For some reason the authorities were not able or did not want to close this major source of venereal disease.” See Hildrus A. Poindexter, My World of Reality: An Autobiography (Detroit, 1973), 126–27.

24 Roy Wilkins, “Nurses Go to War,” Crisis, 50 (Feb. 1943), 42–44, esp. 42. Roy Wilkins explained that “war department plans called for the activating of the 93rd all-Negro (except higher officers) division at Ft. Huachuca and a hospital had to be set up for that many men.” Ibid., 42–43.

25 NMA to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, April 15, 1942, box 200, WWII Administrative Records, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army); “National Medical Association Censures M. O. Bousfield,” signed by the physicians Clarence H. Payne, Chicago; W. G. Alexander, Orange, N.J.; W. D. Morman, St. Louis, Mo.; J. G. Gathings, Houston, Tex.; L. N. Hill, Atlanta, Ga.; H. E. Lee, president of the NMA, and R. M. Hedrick, chairman of the NMA Board of Trustees, ibid.; McAfee to Surgeon General, “Forward for remarks and re: methods used in establishment of the Station Hospital at Fort Huachuca, Arizona,” May 1, 1942, ibid.

26 M. O. Bousfield to Hall, March 6, 1944, ibid.

27 Ibid.; Ward, “Midian Othello Bousfield (1885–1948),” 51–52.

28 William H. Hastie, “Why I Resigned,” Chicago Defender, Feb. 6, 1943.

29 On the race and gender hierarchy in the workplace, see Karen Tucker Anderson, “Last Hired, First Fired: Black Women Workers during World War II,” Journal of American History, 69 (June 1982), 82–97.

30 Darlene Clark Hine, “Mabel K. Staupers and the Integration of Black Nurses into the Armed Forces,” in Black Leaders in the Twentieth Century, ed. John Hope Franklin and August Meier (Urbana, 1983), 241–57, esp. 243.

31 Mabel K. Staupers to Hastie, March 21, 1941, folder 23, box 96-1, Mabel Staupers Papers (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.); Hine, Black Women in White, 170.

32 Hine, Black Women in White, 178–79; Boston Guardian, Jan. 20, 1945.

33 Hine, Black Women in White, 180; Chicago Defender, Jan. 13, 1945.

34 M. Elizabeth Carnegie, The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing, 1854–1990 (New York, 1991), 201–4.

35 Ibid., 205; Hine, Black Women in White, 184–85.

36 Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994 (New York, 1999), 16–17.

37 Kenney, “Plea for Equality in Our National Preparedness Program,” 170.