Editor’s note: When we heard the story of Olive Lucas written by Spy friend Mary Robinson we wanted to share it with our readers. It’s a period of our history that we felt our readers would appreciate and a story you may not know – an African American nurse’s service in World War II. The five-part series covers her time in the Army Nurse Corps between 1942 and 1945. This will be a five-part series.
Preface to Olive Lucas Series
This writing project began with a phone call from my father in 1998. He asked me to see if I could find anything about my Aunt Olive’s time in the Army. Olive was one of my father’s 6 sisters. I grew up with stories about her, she was a woman ahead of her time, a woman who was not willing to settle for the limited options available for a small town girl. My father’s request was a result of Olive having a stroke. She recovered nicely but she lost all memory of her time in the Army.
Olive was among the first Negro nurses admitted to the Army Nurse Corps in World War II. In searching for information I learned that most of her records were lost in the 1973 fire at National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo. Eighty percent of those Army service records for those discharged between Nov 1912 and January 1960 were lost.
The search for information about Olive provided a history lesson I had not expected. It has turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I have no letters or diaries from Olive, only many photos and 2 postcards to her family, but the internet has given me an amazing amount of information. My dilemma was how to put this information together. It is a family story but more than that it is a story of American history, African-American history, women’s history, and more.
A memoir writing class turned out to be the answer to my dilemma. This six week class with the ALL group which at the time was part of CBMM allowed me to organize the information I had found in my research and put it into a format that created a story. I decided to write this piece in the first person as a way to allow Olive to tell her own story. I owe a special thanks to Glory Aiken the leader of the class and to the others in the class who encouraged me to find a way to share this story.
The information I used came from US Army records, books, websites, newspapers, interviews and personal narratives of nurses who were in the Army Nurse Corps at the same time as Olive, which was 1942 to 1945. I learned that the military experience for nurses who served at the same time in some of the same places was different depending on your race, but most of all I learned that Olive is a wonderful example of ambition, courage, resilience and a zest for life.
My name is Olive Lucas, I was born in Westmoreland County, PA on October 31, 1908. I am one of six girls and two boys born to John and Mary Lucas, My family lived in Meadville, PA, a small town just south of Lake Erie. My father was a maintenance man for the Meadville Water and Light Department. His small salary was stretched to provide for this large family, which meant that college was not an option for his children. After graduation, my older sisters, Leona, Ethel and Marguerite, went directly into service in the homes of local wealthy families. When I graduated from high school in 1927, I was desperate to leave that small town where opportunities for a young Negro girl with dreams were extremely limited. My parents were concerned that my inability to live under “White Folks Rules,” would be a problem. To this day I am so grateful that they understood that I was hungry for more than that small town could offer. They allowed me to move to Pittsburgh, PA to stay with my sister Ethel and her husband Pat.
By 1932, I had saved enough money to enroll in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing and I moved to New York City. I graduated from nursing school in 1935 and took a nursing job at Seaview Hospital on Staten Island, NY. While I enjoyed my work at Seaview, it had become routine and I was ready for a change. By 1942, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and the US was fully engaged in World War II. Because of the nursing shortage then, the military considered implementing a draft for nurses. In 1941, the recruiting office of the Army Nurse Corps predicted they would be short 1,000 nurses by 1942. My friend Wanita Davidson and I believed this was a perfect opportunity for us to leave our jobs and join the Army Nurse Corps, so we went to our local Red Cross Chapter to enlist.
Our attempt to join the Army proved to be more difficult than expected. Because of racial discrimination in our country, the Army put in place a quota system for Negro nurses. In 1941 the quota allowed for only 56 nurses. In addition to the quota system, recruitment of nurses was done by the American Red Cross. In order to be a member of the Red Cross, you first had to be affiliated with the American Nurses Association. Negro nurses in southern states were denied affiliation. Negro nurses in northern states who were professional registered nurses and members of the Red Cross, were eligible to join the Army Nurse Corps.
The local Red Cross chapter in New York was not consistent in their admission policies. Wanita and I showed up to register and were turned down on more than one occasion, but I was determined. On August 25, 1942, I received my Red Cross badge number 658-A, and my New York State registration number 071635 and I became a member of the Army Nurse Corps.
One of the biggest incentives for me to join was the pay scale for nurses in the Army. Depending on the years of service, the pay ran from $70 a month to $130 a month after nine years of service. In addition to the salary, there were medical, dental and retirement benefits that were far better than I could receive at Seaview Hospital or any other civilian hospital. The biggest incentive of all, was the opportunity to see the world, meet new people, and learn the latest techniques in medical practice. I was young and eager and determined to follow this opportunity to wherever it might lead.
Mary Robinson lives in St. Michaels, Maryland.