Aileen Cole, Clara Rollins, and Susie Boulding along with 15 other women of color became some of the first Black nurses to officially join the war effort in WWI. They had faced rejection and discrimination from both the military and the Red Cross but as the death toll of the 1918 Flu Pandemic and WWI mounted, the color barrier was finally broken because of the shortage of skilled nurses.
There had been about 181 documented Black nurses, both men and women, during the Civil War, including Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. There were Black nurses in hospitals and as private care nurses such as Mary Mahoney (WCW 39) -- the first Black woman to attend nursing school. However in 1911, the Red Cross officially banned the recruiting of Black nurses. Since the military took their nurses from the Red Cross, the military opportunity was automatically closed to them. However, Black male doctors and dentists were allowed to join the military.
In 1918, Robert Moton, President of the Tuskegee Institute, repudiated the Red Cross condemning the “indifference on the part of colored people which ought not to be when the country needs every ounce of effort along every available line”.
The 18 Black nurses still had “separate but equal” living quarters but overall were treated as part of the medical team and valued by their patients. Aileen Cole wrote of her experience: “The story of the Negro woman in World War I is not spectacular. We arrived after the Armistice was signed, which alone was anticlimactic. We had no opportunity for ‘service above and beyond the call of duty.’ But each one of us, in the course of our professional relationships, did contribute quietly and with dignity to the idea that justice demands professional equality for all qualified nurses.”