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A Fight for the Right to Care in Los Angeles

Vintage Photo of African American Nursing Graduate, Undated

Vintage photograph of an African American nurse holding her diploma, undated (although likely early 20th century).
Photo from Michael Zwerdling Collection at U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute of Health.

By 1911, although the Los Angeles County Hospital Training School for Nurses (present-day College of Nursing and Allied Health at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center) had already been training nurses for 16 years, not a single African American applicant had been accepted at the school. In October 1911, a young African American woman, Eloise Lightfoot, applied to the school, only to be immediately rejected because “colored women were not admitted” and “would create trouble in the department.” The County Board of Supervisors was informed of the matter because "a colored attorney in the city", P.M. Nash, had protested and was "considerably exercised over the matter," although "very gentlemanly about it," according to hospital superintendent Dr. C. H. Whitman. Shortly thereafter, the board received a petition protesting the county hospital’s refusal to accept African Americans to its nursing school. Apparently, white staff members and students at the hospital and school also were aware of the application and subsequent petition for admission, which led them to submit a counter-petition warning of negative consequences (including wholesale departures of white nurses and nursing students) if African Americans were allowed in the school. Dr. Whitman, although stating that he was personally favorable to admitting African American applicants, was more concerned about the hostile response from hospital staff and students. Nevertheless, in April 1912, the board ordered the school to accept African American women, although only in segregated facilities. White blowback must have been intense, however, because the board promptly rescinded their order.

Original Los Angeles County Hospital, ca. 1910-1925

Postcard of original Los Angeles County Hospital, ca. 1910-1925, published by Pacific Novelty Company, San Francisco.
Building at center remains standing today and is in use by the Los Angeles County Coroner.
Los Angeles Almanac Postcard Collection.

Years later, in 1918, America was deeply engaged in World War I and experiencing a severe nationwide shortage of nurses, in part due to the deployment of nurses to Europe for the war. Los Angeles County Hospital had even been hiring unqualified nursing assistants to make up for the shortages. At the same time, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, established a few years earlier in 1914, was actively seeking to knock down racial barriers in employment, education, housing, transportation and recreation. The chapter saw the wartime nursing shortage as an opportunity to again try to open the door for African American student nurses at the county hospital. Besides, they argued, it was grossly unfair that young African American men were fighting for democracy thousands of miles away in Europe when they could not fully experience the same back home. In June 1918, the NAACP petitioned the County Board of Supervisors to fully admit "members of the Negro race to the Training School for Nurses.” It was argued that, to not do so, denied the country desperately needed new nurses and additional nurses to care for wounded American soldiers in the war. On July 17, 1918, the board unanimously voted to order the hospital "to receive colored women for training.”

E. Burton Ceruti, Los Angeles NAACP Attorney, Undated

E. Burton Ceruti, early 20th century attorney for the Los Angeles NAACP.

White nurses and students at the hospital again fought back. They again submitted a letter to the board warning of dire consequences and lost opportunities for white candidates if African Americans entered the nursing school. Nurses threatened to strike. Board Chairman John J. Hamilton issued the following statement:

“We are waging a war for democracy—for the principle that all men are created equal. Colored men are laying down their lives in France for the protection of our homes, our women and our children. There is a crying need for nurses, both at home and abroad. Our high schools are graduating numbers of colored girls who are in every way fitted for this self-sacrificing service. It would be undemocratic and unpatriotic, not to say un-Christian, to deny them equality of opportunity in this field. I am sure our nurses will see their duty and do it in kindly spirit. The Board of Supervisors would be recreant to its obligations to the country if it would yield to this demand.”

The board did not back down and hospital superintendent Norton R. Martin supported the order. However, later in the year, the Spanish Flu Influenza pandemic struck Los Angeles, and by January 1919, the board decided to temporarily suspend its order, citing concerns about additional stress and disorganization at the hospital while in the midst of fighting the deadly flu crisis. By the following spring, however, once the crisis had passed, the board restored its order. Four African American women, Victoria P. Anderson, Helen P. Gladden, Adele E. Kemp and Ethel M. Strotters, became the first African American women admitted to Los Angeles County Hospital’s nursing school. This was celebrated as a significant civil rights victory in America for its time, thrusting the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and its attorney, E. Burton Ceruti, into the national forefront of the early 20th century fight for civil rights for all Americans.

Sources: Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion. A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles. By Emily K. Abel, 2007, Rutgers University Press; Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXXVIII, Number 48, Nov. 21, 1911; The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review, Volume 61, July 1918, Lakeside Publishing Company.