Gugielmo: Desegregating the blood supply took a civil rights campaign

Of George Washington University

In December 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor ushered the U.S. into World War II, a Detroit mother named Sylvia Tucker visited her local Red Cross donor center to give blood. Having heard the soul-stirring appeals for blood donors on the radio, she was determined to do her part.

But when she arrived at the center, the supervisor turned her away. “Orders from the national office bar Negro blood donors at this time,” he told her.

Shocked and grieved, Tucker left in tears. She later penned a letter of protest to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Today, this discriminatory blood program and African-Americans’ determined opposition to it are long forgotten, despite the fact a few scholars, including Spencie Love, Susan E. Lederer, Sarah E. Chinn and myself, have explored the topic.

This history is worth remembering. It provides an antidote to facile, feel-good stories about the “Good War” — stories that scholars such as Michael C.C. Adams and Kenneth D. Rose have long refuted. but that live on in museum exhibits, blockbuster films, best-selling books and war memorials.

The story of how blood got desegregated also reminds Americans that, as novelist Ralph Ellison wrote nearly a half-century ago, “The black American … puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals.” Historian Robin D.G. Kelley puts it more broadly: “The marginal and excluded have done the most to make democracy work in America.”

The Red Cross blood donor program was launched in early 1941. The agency went on to collect blood from millions of Americans for shipment to soldiers fighting overseas.

“If I could reach all America,” asserted General Dwight D. Eisenhower at the end of the war, “there is one thing I would like to do — thank them for blood plasma and whole blood. It has been a tremendous thing.”

Tremendous indeed, as the program saved many lives. But it initially excluded African-Americans like Sylvia Tucker. And when it did begin accepting them in early 1942, it did so on a segregated basis.

Never mind that scientists saw no relationship between race and blood. Never mind that the director of the program, and one of the leading authorities on blood banking at the time, was an African-American scientist named Dr. Charles Drew. Never mind that Nazi Germany had its own Aryan-only blood policy, or that America’s principal rhetorical war aims concerned democracy and freedom.

To what extent military commanders segregated blood in the field was, during the war and afterward, a matter of some debate. Officially, at least, the racial distinction remained in place for years.

It was not until 1950 that the Red Cross stopped requiring segregation of so-called “Negro blood.” And it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Southern states such as Arkansas and Louisiana overturned segregation requirements.

In one internal memorandum, the Red Cross argued, “The point of view of the majority … must be taken into account in a democracy,” the assumption being that the majority demanded segregation.“

Blacks and their allies had a very different idea about democracy, one that required all citizens be treated equally, without regard to race. They fought tirelessly throughout the war to make that idea a reality in the military, the workplace and larger society.

These many battles constituted a nascent, surging and often-overlooked civil rights struggle — one that helped pave the way for the more famous movement of the postwar years.

Nearly all the major civil rights organizations of the day, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the March on Washington Movement and even the upstart Congress of Racial Equality, made changing blood policy a top priority. One statement from a group of the nation’s most prominent black leaders put it this way:

“In justice to what we know to be the practically unanimous sentiment among Negroes in America, we affirm the need for alteration of the segregated blood plasma policy.” Black newspapers, enormously popular and important at the time, also protested blood segregation and exclusion, regularly featuring front-page stories, boldface headlines and blistering editorials on the subject.
In January 1942, the Cleveland Call and Post lamented:

“The cross of Red that burned so bright
In fire, storm and flood
Is now the crooked Nazi sign
That spurns a Negro blood!”

Labor unions, Christian and Jewish groups, local interracial committees, scientific organizations and the New Jersey State Legislature all spoke out against continued blood segregation.

An interracial group of junior high schoolers at Harlem’s Public School 43 tested the blood of a black student and white student. Finding no difference, the students wrote an article, made up posters and held a public meeting in opposition to the Red Cross policy.

The most widespread form of protest, however, came from thousands of ordinary African-Americans who refused to donate money or blood to the Red Cross. While Blacks made up 10% of the population at the time, they accounted for less than 1% of blood donations.

African-Americans contributed generously to the Treasury Department’s defense bond program, so it wasn’t lack of patriotism. It was a determined opposition to race-based exclusion and segregation.

This activism failed to democratize the blood program during the war. But African Americans did, in the end, force the Red Cross to include them as donors.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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