Who are the Black Cross Nurses?

Pictured: Buffalo Black Cross workers Sophia Blyden (left) and Nina Burgos conduct health worship.

By Sophia Blyden and Nina Burgos

The Universal African Black Cross Nurses (UABCN) is an international auxiliary of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, established in 1920). The objects of this Auxiliary shall be to carry on a system of relief and to apply the same in mitigating the suffering caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods, and other great calamities and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same.  UABCNs are to attend to the sick of the Division to which the public Auxiliary is attached and be ready for service at any time when called upon. As well as to issue pamphlets which will tend to educate the public to the use of safety devices and prevention of accident; to instruct in sanitation for prevention of epidemics and to instruct in First Aid.

African women have been health care providers since the beginning of time, no degrees or certifications needed. All the way through the Ma’afa (Great Tragedy) and Jim Crow, our women took charge of health care needs. Black nurses were practicing independently and alongside doctors since the 1800s.

By 1917, Black Doctors were in military service but no Black nurses. This prompted many requests from Black nurses to serve the soldiers at war. Due to the level of racism at the time, segregation and exclusion was still very prominent. Similar to that of civilian clinics and hospitals the regulations at the time were that ‘applicants to the Armed Forces Nurse Corps (managed by the American Red Cross) had to be between 25 and 35 years of age, unmarried, and graduates of hospital training schools with more than 50 beds.’ The last part being the racially restrictive part, as Black nurses were only graduating from schools with much fewer than 50 beds.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu Epidemic occurred. With people getting sick and dying all around them and not being ‘officially’ allowed to serve, Black women did what Black women do. They took action! Setting up clinics, providing their communities with supplies, food and treatment to those in need. The epidemic eventually got so bad, the Red Cross had to relax their racist policies and recruit Black Nurses.

Watching how well our people responded in a time of crisis, Marcus Garvey, President General of the UNIA, along with his wife Amy, Lady H.V. Davis, Cleopatra White, Vivian Seay and others were prompted to develop the UABCN Auxiliary In 1920. These Garveyites had the foresight to codify the work that they were doing into Black Cross training manuals and graduated their own certificated nurses from their own schools. Soon after between 1920 and 1921 the Buffalo Black Cross Nurses grew from 30 to 65 members under Nurse Irene Freeland. In 1928 Garveyites Dr. Logan W. Horton and Dr. J.J. Peters opened The Free Community Medical Clinic in New Orleans. Between 1935 and 1937, the UABCN provided bandages and other first aid supplies to the Ethiopian soldiers.

Here we are, a century from its inception, being required to carry on the torch of our great ancestors! In 2020, the UABCN is responding to another crisis. In solidarity with all essential workers and volunteer groups and coalitions we stand. Armed with ‘Clean Kits’, Hygiene pamphlets, soaps and hand sanitizer the Black Cross is once again on the front lines. Let us not waiver!
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