We “feel that because we are Americans . . . we should try to overlook the conduct of your organization, in order to lend aid to our country in this time of need.” This was the message attached to the $5 donation given to the Red Cross by an all-black Girl Scout troop in Brooklyn, New York, during World War II. That “conduct”? The Red Cross was refusing blood donations from Black people – during a freakin’ war, when blood was in high demand! And then, when they did allow for such donations, they kept them segregated from the blood donations of white donors (at least officially). And the Red Cross was following policies set forth by the U.S. military. So, this 4th of July season, I ask you, who were the patriotic people in this situation? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be “patriotic.” If being patriotic means supporting “great” organizations with a history (and present) of unjust institutional practices, there’s nothing to celebrate this July 4. But, if it means supporting the women, men, and children both outside of and within these institutions who spoke out and took action against those practices, who fought for a truly great nation – for all. And the people who continue to do so to this day? Well, if that’s what patriotism means, that *is* something worth celebrating. And today, I want to tell you the story of such people whom I consider true patriots who deserve celebrating – how everyday individuals worked together to end the racial segregation of blood in U.S. blood banks. 

The National Blood Donor Service (run by the federal government and the Red Cross) was established in February 1941 and, during its first year, it outright excluded the blood from Black donors. In January 1942, after pressure from activists, they changed their policy to accept the blood from Black donors, but keep it segregated. It was not until 1947 that the Red Cross ended its national policy of segregation, and some states and local blood banks had such policies in place until as late as the 1970s (looking at you Louisiana and Arkansas…). https://bit.ly/2YWvIEg 

note: unless indicated, the following information comes from a great article by Thomas A. Guglielmo entitled “Red Cross, Double Cross”: Race and America’s World War II–Era Blood Donor Service. It’s paywalled, so you might need to access it through your library (or a helpful friend as a did – thanks Alexandra Newton!). 

If you’ve been following me, you might remember me telling you about Charles Richard Drew. If not, here’s the gist (and you can read the whole story here: https://bit.ly/charlesrdrew ). Charles Drew is considered the “father of the blood bank” because he developed methods for the large-scale (and importantly, safe!) collection, preservation, and delivery of blood and blood products (mainly plasma, the liquidy, non-cell components of blood) and helped organize the first national blood banks in the United States. He was also Black. And thus, he was excluded from donating blood to the very blood banks he established. Ultimately, the refusal of these banks to end this practice likely led him to resign and move onto teaching surgery at Howard University before his tragic early death. 

In a scathing letter to the director of the federal Labor Standards Association, penned in 1944, Drew wrote: “I think the Army made a grievous mistake, a stupid error in first issuing an order to the effect that blood for the Army should not be received from Negroes. It was a bad mistake for 3 reasons: (1) No official department of the Federal Government should willfully humiliate its citizens; (2) There is no scientific basis for the order; and (3) They need the blood.”

Let’s look a bit closer at that second reason he gives – that there is no scientific reason to segregate blood by the race of the donor. This issue actually wasn’t really disputed. The government knew there was no biological difference – they even admitted it. A 1941 US War Department Directive ordering the segregation of blood read, “For reasons which are not biologically convincing but which are commonly recognized as psychologically important in America, it is not deemed advisable to collect and mix Caucasian and Negro blood indiscriminately for later administration to members of the military forces.”

The government and military leaders claimed that soldiers bleeding out on the battlefield would be more psychologically harmed by receiving the blood of a Black person than they would be physically harmed from bleeding out. It’s important to note that this was the strong opinion of the leaders and did not reflect the feelings of all of the military and, as I will tell you about later, some *truly* patriotic military members did fight back on it. But it’s also important to note that the opinion of the people in power tends to matter most. And it takes the work of many more people in a disadvantaged position to enact change.

Even if you were to accept the premise that receiving blood from a Black person would cause a White person “psychological harm” and/or lead them to reject life-saving blood on their death bead. Even if you were to take that as the truth, by instituting their exclusionary and segregationist practices the national blood program sent the clear message that they (and, in effect, the government) valued the feelings and health of White people more than the feelings and health of Black people. 

How do you think it felt for the countless Black men and women, who, full of “patriotism,” showed up at blood banks during WWII in order to do their part to help the US in the war effort, only to be turned away for the color of their skin. How do you think it felt when they could only donate at Black-only blood collection centers. How do you think it felt when they saw the big letters “AA” written on the tubes filled with the blood from their veins signifying that this blood came from an African American and therefore shouldn’t be given to White people who need it?

As I mentioned above, there is no biological difference between the blood taken from Black people and that of White people – but that didn’t stop White fearmongering racists from trying to convince White people that there was. Logic seemed to be of no matter because, if there were some biological difference in the blood based on “race”, wouldn’t that apply to *all* “races”? Wouldn’t you need to separate the blood of White people from Black people, from Brown people, from Asians – would you maybe need to go so far as separate the blood of Chinese donors from the blood of Japanese donors? Where do you draw the line? The government made it quite clear where they drew the line: The director of the national blood bank, G. Canby Robinson wrote: “Chinese, Filipinos, and others would be treated as white donors. They need not be separated, as the statement only applied to Afro-Americans.” 

Of course, they were relying on skin color alone to tell if someone was African American, so some light-skinned Black people donated their blood anyway. And this was just one of the ways “true patriots” spoke up, acted, demanded change, and, ultimately achieved it. So, here’s the story…

Before the establishment of the National Blood Donor Service, blood donations were handled by local blood banks who set their own policies. Some excluded Black people from donating, others allowed them to donate but segregated their blood, and others treated the blood of Black donors same as any other blood.

But when the national blood bank system came on the scene, they had to establish set policies. Especially after the story started making a bit of news. The exposure of the story was, at least in the beginning, almost exclusively carried out by Black-run newspapers. For example. in July 1941, a government worker named Wanda Douglas showed up at a Baltimore blood donation center with 9 of her white colleagues only to be told her blood wasn’t welcome there – that if she wanted to donate she’d have to go to a separate facility for Black people (whose blood would be used locally and not as part of the national system). The Douglas story was picked up by the local Black newspaper, the “Baltimore Afro-American.”

It didn’t cause that big of a stir, but it, and other exposed incidents, did cause the Red Cross to realize they needed to put out their unspoken race policy in writing.  Should they exclude Black donors entirely, segregate it, or mix it? So, in August-September 1941, they asked the military heads for their opinions. Surgeon general of the Navy Ross T. McIntire, wrote: “Your query regarding the use of negro blood as far as the Navy is concerned, is a very simple one to answer. At this time, there is no need for such a procedure and I can not visualize one in the near future.” The army’s surgeon general, James C. Magee, concurred. Mixing blood was too psychologically damaging for White people and establishing segregated blood donation systems was too expensive. 

So, on November 5, 1941, in a “confidential policy statement,” the director of the blood program, G. Canby Robinson, wrote: “in obtaining blood plasma for use in the armed forces the American Red Cross is acting pursuant to the requests and instructions of the Army and the Navy and up to this time the Red Cross has been asked to supply only plasma from white donors.”

The blood banking program (and its racist policies) started getting more attention after America entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In December 1941, a few days after the attack, a Black woman named Sylvia M. Tucker showed up at Detroit’s Red Cross donor center to donate blood. And was turned away, in tears, after her urging to the supervisor to “place it in a container and label it ‘Negro Blood’ and after due process make it available for some Negro mother’s son, who, like his white American brothers-in-arms, must face shot and shell and death as these things know no ‘color line.’” fell on deaf ears (she had argued for this segregated alternative after her blood was excluded outright). 

Tucker’s story, and the stories of countless other Black Americans turned away when trying to do their “patriotic duty” started to make the news (at least among Black newspapers). And in late December 1941, the white-owned tabloid PM broke the story of that “confidential policy” written by Robinson.

This led to outrage among civil rights activists and organizations, who pushed for the rights of Black people to do their “patriotic duty” and donate blood (which was becoming more and more in demand). (It’s also important to remember that the military had no problem allowing Black people (in segregated units) to “donate blood” on the battlefield…) 

It would be impossible to highlight all of the incredible, powerful, meaningful actions people took – small and large, but here are a few. In addition to the traditional methods of people writing letters to the Red Cross, military leaders, congressmen, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, groups of people took less conventional action, like that group of Girls Scouts I was telling you about. There were also large protests and scathing editorials largely published by the Black press. Within government, 3 state assemblymen from Harlem spoke out against the policy before the state legislature and William Hastie, the civilian aide and race advisor to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, tried his best to influence policies but was too far outside of the War Department’s inner circle. National civil rights organizations got involved, especially the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

And the activism worked – well, at least in part. In a statement dated January 21, 1942, the Red Cross put out an official statement that “the American Red Cross, in agreement with the army and Navy, is prepared hereafter to accept blood donations from colored as well as white persons. In deference to the wishes of those for whom the plasma is being provided, the blood will be processed separately so that those receiving transfusions may be given plasma from blood of their own race.”

So, exclusion’s out, but segregation’s in full swing. So the activists didn’t give up. Instead they got louder, with almost all civil rights organizations and leaders taking up the cause – even the March on Washington Movement (MOWM) often included a demand for an end to blood segregation. 

While the military as an institution was systemically racist, there were protestors within the military itself who acted truly patriotically, disregarding the racial markings on the blood they received. Local chapters of the Red Cross also “went rogue” and refused to segregate the blood. The director of St. Louis’ blood bank, “offered to throw out all Negro blood if anyone could tell which was which. No one could.” Which brings us back to the science issue of how there’s no biological difference. Organizations of scientists and doctors published articles and spoke out about how this (though it’s important to note that many of those groups also excluded Black scientists and doctors from their organizations). 

I learned about my favorite science story in an article by Josh Rosenau. https://bit.ly/3dRypLf  When I got in touch with him, he provided me with the copy of the play I’m going to tell you about, which he got from Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection – so huge thank you to both of them!

The story involves an interracial group of junior high students at Harlem’s P.S. 43. Their teachers helped them test the blood of a white donor and a black donor and find “conclusively there was no difference.” So, these students did what good scientists do and wrote up an article (in their school paper). They also held a large public meeting in April 1943. An alumnus of the school made a poster which they distributed hundreds of copies of. Their story would later be used by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) as inspiration for a short play called “Blood Doesn’t Tell.”

That was just one example of the arts sector getting involved. There were numerous other plays, poems, etc. produced. And it was also just one example of how young people were making an impact. In another great story, a woman named Helen Lea used her “in” with Secretary of War Henry Stimson to “trick” Stimson into meeting with 2 high school students who, after graciously allowing Stimson to show them his office, photos, etc. started urging him to end blood segregation.

But it was really hard to get anyone to budge. Although in May 1945 the army published a fact sheet used in soldier orientations entitled “Prejudice!—Road Block to Progress,” which stated “Modern science has revealed that all human blood is the same. . . . The ‘blood and race’ theories of the Nazis have never been accepted by scientists and have been more than disproved by this War,” the Red Cross didn’t change its policy until after the war. In 1947, the Red Cross finally put out a statement saying that segregation was no longer “required” but it wasn’t banned – instead it was up to local banks to decide. And then in 1950, they voted to stop marking racial designations on blood donor records. 

But that didn’t end the practice everywhere. In 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Public Health Service told hospitals to stop segregating blood or they’d lose their federal funding. Arkansas repealed a law it had which had *mandating* segregation of blood in 1969. And then in 1972, Louisiana did similarly. Also in 1972, the FDA was put in charge of overseeing blood banks, and they put out an official ban on the practice. https://bit.ly/2YWvIEg 

While we should celebrate all of the great activists who got these policies changed, their efforts should never have been necessary. At the very same time we were fighting against the racial ideologies of the Nazis overseas, we were upholding racial ideologies of white supremacists in the United States. We were praising the soldiers serving our country on the battlefield, but condemning the patriots fighting for their rights in the U.S. 

Please don’t confuse my criticism of government and military institutions and my unwillingness to blindly support and praise their actions as ingratitude. I am incredibly grateful to have been born in the US and to benefit from the work these institutions provide. And I am grateful for the freedom of speech to speak out against these injustices. And I feel like we all have a “patriotic” obligation to make sure that these institutes benefit *all* of the American people – and the global population. Because, as the pandemic is showing us, we really are all in this together, we are interconnected. And, as it’s also showing us, our nation does *not* have “liberty and justice for all.” If it did, minorities wouldn’t be dying at disproportional levels. Black people wouldn’t be incarcerated at such high rates, wouldn’t have knees pressed into their throats by police as they gasped for air while other cops watched on, sure they wouldn’t be charged because of their badge. Families fleeing oppression wouldn’t find themselves separated, children placed in filthy cages, rape victims sent back to meet their attackers, all on the orders of the government. 

The 4th of July celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of our country. In it, it says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” By “all men” they clearly meant White men, because this was written in 1776 and slavery wasn’t abolished until 1865. Our “great nation” was literally largely built by slaves during that period. And, while slavery is now outlawed, it is abundantly clear that, after centuries of segregation and racism, our society still bears its legacy and our government is not protecting the unalienable rights of all. 

So, this 4th of July (and always) I urge you to truly reflect on what it means to be “patriotic.” What or whom are we celebrating? What or whom *should* we be celebrating? I believe that it’s our patriotic duty not just to celebrate the nation for its accomplishments, but to acknowledge its shortcomings, acknowledge its history, and work to truly make this country a great nation. Because pledging allegiance shouldn’t mean pledging complacency. 

One Thought on “Racial segregation of blood in the United States & the true patriots who put an end to it”

  • Chinese blood was also segregated during WWII according to entries in Prof. Barbara Brooks-Tomblin’s “GI Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps during WWII.”

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