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Partners in Service: American Red Cross and National Black Nurses Association


“I believe that service to others is the obligation of mankind, . . .” (Excerpt from The Creed of the Red Cross Nurse.)

Scores of nurse volunteers help the American Red Cross bring food, shelter, comfort and hope during times of disaster. Some are members of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA), an organization that has supported the Red Cross mission during a twenty-year partnership that was renewed last year.

"The National Black Nurses Association is excited to partner with the American Red Cross. We are unified in our commitment to ensure access and quality service in communities during disasters," stated Dr. Deidre Walton, NBNA President.

The partnership encourages local Red Cross and NBNA chapters to work together on emergency preparedness, disaster response, and more. NBNA members are provided an opportunity to develop expertise in disaster relief and to support their communities should an emergency occur. The partnership offers the Red Cross more nurse volunteers delivering services to more people.

“Research has shown that there are better health outcomes when health care providers represent the communities they serve and Red Cross nurses are working to recruit and retain a diverse cadre of paid staff and volunteers,” said Linda MacIntyre, national chair of nursing. “This partnership is at the heart of what we need to do to reach that goal.”

Red Cross nurses have provided assistance during disaster and conflict since the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1888 and Johnstown floods in 1889. The Red Cross Nursing Service was officially established in 1909. In 1919, this group of American Red Cross nurses stood ready to serve through the Army Nurses Corps.

A Look Back in Time

In the early twentieth century, black nurses were struggling for professional equality.

The first African-American Red Cross nurse to wear a Red Cross nurse pin was Frances Reed Elliott Davis, a professional nurse at a Washington, D.C. hospital. The pin’s “1-A” engraving designated the wearer as African-American. Davis had been unsuccessful in efforts to become a nurse volunteer in 1915, but persisted, and was enrolled on July 2, 1918. She was assigned to the Town and Country Nursing Service, a Red Cross unit of public health nurses providing bedside nursing care and education about infectious diseases, sanitation and immunizations.

The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917, and champions for the full integration of African-American women into the nursing profession, including Adah Belle Samuels Thoms, encouraged black nurses to enroll and serve their country. Jane Delano, chairman of the American Red Cross Nursing Service, supported Thoms’ position and asked the Army about enrolling black nurses. The Army declined. The government finally said okay to enrolling African-American nurses in the American Red Cross Nursing Service, but to let the nurses know they would not be called up.

It was not until after an armistice ending the war was signed that the first group of African-American nurses was accepted into the Army Nurse Corps. An influenza epidemic that would take more than half-a-million American lives was sweeping across the nation, and thousands of nurses were recruited and sent by the Federal government to military camps, hospitals, coal fields, munitions plants and shipyards.

The first 18 black nurses accepted into the Army Nurse Corps in December 1918 were among this group, serving at Camp Grant, Illinois; Camp Sevier, South Carolina; and Camp Sherman, Ohio. Among them was Marion Brown Seymour who later joined Red Cross national headquarters staff to help with World War II nurse enrollment.

From 1917 to 1949, when the practice of issuing the “A” pins stopped, more than 1,850 African-American nurses had enrolled in the American Red Cross Nursing Service.

Additional Red Cross history can be found in the ‘About Us’ section of www.redcross.org.