Why African Americans Were More Likely to Die During the 1918 Flu Pandemic - HISTORY

Howard University class in nursing, circa 1915.

Black nurses played a major role in the caring for the Black community’s stricken, despite facing discrimination. Southern nursing schools denied them entrance, while Northern schools admitted them in token numbers. After the U.S. entered World War I, the Army and the American Red Cross turned Black nurses away when they tried to volunteer, Jones says.

“By the time the flu came around, there were almost 3,000 Black women who had top-notch training that rivaled those of white nurses,” she adds.

But eventually, as more white nurses shipped overseas to military hospitals in Europe during World War I, and the pandemic took hold, a nursing shortage developed at home. “Many [African American nurses] were called up to serve in hospitals, private day nursing and in military hospitals, where they had previously been excluded,” says Jones, who wrote about their efforts in a study on Black nurses during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Among them: Frances Reed Elliott, the first Black nurse enrolled into the Red Cross nursing service. Sent to rural Tennessee to finally fulfill her hard-fought dream of working in healthcare, she reportedly learned to drive a car in a single day so she could make house calls to patients in both Black and white communities. After several months of service there, she eventually contracted influenza herself and was admitted to Washington, D.C.’s Freedman’s Hospital—where she had completed her training. Elliott recovered and went on to a long career in public health.

When the influenza pandemic ended, it didn’t lead to any public health or medical initiatives to improve the poor health status of Black Americans, says Gamble. Nor did it lead to changes in opportunities for Black health professionals—with very few exceptions. 

“They remained segregated in the Black medical world.”

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