CHARLESTON (WV), November 3, 1918 — “I’ll bet you young nurses had your hearts set on going overseas, wearing romantic Red Cross uniforms, to nurse our soldiers, didn’t you?” Major Maxwell, we might imagine, was dressed in full military uniform, and, from an imposing stature, looked down on the three dark faces, who stared anxiously back at him from beneath their white caps.
We don’t know how they responded, these three young graduates of Freedmen’s Hospital School of Nursing: Aileen Cole, Clara Rollins, and Sue Boulding. We can guess that they would have affirmed the proposition. They were indeed eager to serve on the field of battle.
Instead, in the war’s waning days, the three were called up to respond to the influenza epidemic (it, too, on the wane) in the mining towns of West Virginia. Major Maxwell explained: “The miners in these areas are dying like flies. We’ve got to save their lives to keep the transports moving.” Coal was the reason, in the eleventh hour, the Army set aside race prejudice and enlisted these three African American nurses, and another fifteen besides.
The three split up. Cole was sent to a mining encampment named Cascade, where she and the cook were the only women present; Cole the only colored person. For the next week and more, she cared for bedridden influenza patients by herself, the doctor showing up every few days while doing his rounds by motor car.
Race prejudice was not a problem, according to Cole. Her Red Cross uniform “proved to be a magic password to courtesy, respect, and friendliness.” Besides, the ailing miners were in no position to insist on segregation. They accepted the attentions of a colored nurse happily and with appreciation.
Stewart, Aileen Cole. “Ready to Serve: A Nurse Recalls her experiences during the First World War and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” The American Journal of Nursing. Vol. 63, no. 9, September 1963, pp. 85-88.
Thoms, Adah B. Pathfinders: A History of the Progress of Colored Graduate Nurses. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985 (1929).