The Army’s First Black Nurses Were Relegated to Caring for Nazi Prisoners of War

During World War II, more than 40,000 nurses served in the US military. Only about 500 of them over the entire course of the war were black nurses, and they had to fight to be admitted. Elinor Powell was one of them, an officer in the US Army Nurse Corps. Powell's father had served in World War I and an ancestor had fought with the Union in the Civil War. Yet even in uniform, she was subject to Jim Crow laws.

Elinor’s cohort of newly trained Army nurses soon received shocking news: There had been too much fraternization between white nurses and German POWs at Camp Florence. So the Army was bringing in black nurses as replacements.

POW camps would become an ongoing assignment for the majority of African-American nurses. The remainder were stationed at segregated bases with black soldiers, who mostly performed maintenance and menial jobs during the war, and understood what it meant to wear a U.S. military uniform and still be treated like a second-class citizen.

Life for a black army nurse at a POW camp could be lonely and isolated. The camps in the South and Southwest, in particular, strictly enforced Jim Crow. The list of complaints from black nurses included being routinely left out of officer meetings and social functions, and being forced to eat in segregated dining halls. The trips to nearby towns were also degrading because of establishments that either relegated blacks to subpar seating and service or barred them from entering altogether.

Interactions between the German POWs and the nurses was problematic, too, since the enemy soldiers had not only been shipped in from a culture that lauded Aryan purity, but also were treated as superior to the black nurses in America. Meanwhile, there was a shortage of nurses to care for wounded American veterans. Read the story of black nurses in World War II at Smithsonian.

Read what happened to Elinor Powell after the war at the New York Times.

(Image courtesy of Chris Albert)


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Every time I despair about true equality for people of color, I see something like this that lets me see we have made some progress, even though there's a long way to go for true equality.
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Probably just friendliness. After all, Frederick Albert was "beaten severely by officers" when they found out he liked Elinor, and she was black. Can you imagine how they would have treated a POW who sexually assaulted a white nurse?
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