A Woman to Know: Aileen Bertha Stewart

Today’s post was written by Holly Rivet, archival technician at the National Archives in St. Louis.

Cole wearing a nurse hat, dark cape, and nurse uniform
Aileen Bertha Stewart, c. 1918 (NAID 2662312)

In 1917, the United States formally entered the First World War.  Medical professionals registered for military service and volunteered to meet the needs of wartime healthcare systems.  More than 100 Black doctors and twelve dentists served in the US Army Medical Corps, but not a single nurse was admitted.

Before the American Red Cross integrated, Aileen Bertha Cole wanted to serve her country.  She completed her three year program at the Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing at Howard University in 1917.  Not long after, she passed her state board exams and set her sights on becoming a nurse in the Army Nurse Corps.  The Red Cross and the US military had often cited the lack of “appropriate” quarters for not admitting Black women into military service.  However, while full integration was not available to men, they were still permitted to serve.

At this time most private hospitals still excluded Black patients and hospital staff.  Integration of medical professionals expanded with the 1918 Pandemic when hospitals were becoming inundated.   Only then did opportunities for Black nurses become more available.  Upon graduation, Stewart had enrolled with the Red Cross and began her career caring for miners in West Virginia struck ill with influenza.  She would visit homes to monitor the health and treat more than twenty families.  The National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) had been petitioning the Red Cross to enroll Black nurses for military service, but were often met with the common retort that it would be a burden to create segregated quarters.

On November 13, 1918, at the age of 24, Cole received a letter from the Red Cross stating that the “Surgeon General has called for a limited number of colored nurses, through the Red Cross to be available for service about December 1.”  Clara Rollins was designated as the head of this team of nurses until they received their post assignments.

references the Surgeon General call for Black nurses, inquires if she would like to join
Letter from Clara Noyes to Aileen Bertha Cole, Nov 13, 1918 (NAID 2662312)

In an interview from 1974, Stewart read from the entry she wrote in her diary the day she received the letter.  It reads: 

I am the first R.N. to work with the miners and Joe is completely sold on the idea.  I turned the offer down even though I was told I could set my own salary for a permanent job.  I explained that I had been waiting more than a year for an assignment in the Army Nurse Corps.

She took her oath of office on November 29, 1918.

9 Black nurses in their uniform stand in front of a building
Aileen Cole Stewart (far left), and the other eight nurses that were stationed at Camp Sherman, Ohio (US Army)

Only eighteen African American nurses were recruited for military service at this time.  She was one of the nine nurses sent to Camp Sherman, Ohio.  The remaining nine were sent to Camp Grant, Illinois. They were housed in segregated quarters.  The first African American Red Cross nurses were segregated even in their enrollment numbers.  They were numbers 1-18 with a letter “A” at the end.  Cole was 13-A indicating she was the thirteenth to be enrolled.  Francis Elliot Davis was 1-A.  Their directive was to care for locals infected with influenza.  As the pandemic began to subside, injured soldiers were returning from the European Theater.  The nurses changed course and tended to those wounded.

list of nurse names along with their red cross number
File List of Historical Nurses (NAID 2661009)

The Army Nurse Corps discharged all of these eighteen nurses in August 1919, but their service set the precedent for future nurses.  Five hundred Black nurses went on to serve in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.

After her Army discharge in August of 1919, she took employment at the newly opened Booker T. Washington Sanitarium.  This facility was among the first in the country to treat tuberculosis in African Americans.  She went on to work as a public health nurse in New York for 34 years.  Never one to slow down, she and her family relocated to Seattle Washington in 1956 where she was a day nurse at Swedish Hospital from 1956 to 1962.  She continued her service with the Red Cross by teaching home health and volunteering in youth programs.  At the age of 68, she completed her Bachelor’s of Science in public health nursing from the University of Washington.

Stewart recounted her experience as a Red Cross Nurse in her article “Ready to Serve,” first published in The American Journal of Nursing; vol. 63, No. 9 (Sep. 1963), pp. 85-87.  It can also be found here (JSTOR account may be needed). Stewart’s original file was not among the Historical Nurse Files, 1916-1959 (NAID 649203).  However, in response to a letter of inquiry regarding Aileen Cole Stewart, a file covering her service was reconstructed by the Red Cross; the file Stewart, Aileen Bertha nee Cole (NAID 2662312) is now available to view in the National Archives Catalog.

Further Reading:

This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has chosen Black Health and Wellness as the theme. We hope you enjoy blogs that reveal stories of Black health and wellness from the records of the National Archives.

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