Victory at Home and Abroad
During World War II (1939–1945), roughly 1.2 million African Americans served in all branches of the U.S. military, breaking down barriers that had previously barred them from certain branches, ranks, and specializations. More than 6,500 African American women served during the war, including as WACs in the Army, as WAVES in the Navy, as SPARs in the Coast Guard, and as nurses in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and Navy Nurse Corps (NNC).
Two women who served in the ANC—Lt. Louise Lomax and Maj. Della Raney—are represented in the Museum’s collection via scrapbooks they compiled during the war. These scrapbooks illustrate the groundbreaking service of the Black men and women who fought for a double victory: victory against fascism abroad and victory for equal rights at home.
The Founding of the Army Nurse Corps
The ANC was founded in February 1901, followed by the Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) in 1908. Together, these opened the door for white women to serve in the U.S. military. Although Black women had provided nursing services for the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), including nursing the sick and wounded during the Civil War (1861–1865) and working as contract nurses for the Army during the Spanish American War (1898), it wasn’t until the end of World War I in 1918 that the first Black nurses were finally allowed entry into the ANC.
During World War I, more than 1,800 Black nurses had qualified to serve in the ANC, but discrimination and segregation kept them from joining. While over 21,000 white women served in the ANC at its peak during the war, only 18 Black women were finally allowed to enlist in the ANC in December 1918, after the war had ended. These 18 women were stationed at Camp Grant in Illinois and Camp Sherman in Ohio and were primarily responsible for treating victims of the flu epidemic. They served for only eight months before they were discharged from the ANC in August 1919. Black women would not be allowed to serve in the ANC again for another 22 years.
The Army Nurse Corps in World War II
With the onset of World War II, thousands of African American nurses once again volunteered to serve in the ANC, but discrimination and segregation again blocked their entry. Finally, under pressure from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), as well as other political leaders and civil rights organizations, the Army eventually agreed to enlist Black nurses in 1941.
On March 11, 1943, Mabel Staupers, Executive Secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), sent this letter to Louise Lomax, an African American nurse struggling to join the ANC due to discrimination. Staupers writes, “You may be assured that we are doing everything we can to remove the present discrimination which Negro nurses are facing in the Army. … We hope very soon that you will be called for service.” Staupers and the NACGN were instrumental in pressuring the Army to enlist Black nurses during the war. Almost three weeks after this letter was written, Lomax was accepted into the ANC as a second lieutenant.
The Army initially set a quota for Black nurses at 56. While roughly 6,000 white nurses were serving on active duty at this time, Army leaders defended this strict quota by arguing that, as the nurses would only be allowed to treat Black soldiers in Black hospital wards, the Army had very limited need of Black nurses. Under continued pressure, the Army raised the quota to 160 in 1943, when roughly 36,000 white nurses were serving, before eventually lifting the quota in 1944. Even without an official quota, the Army still massively restricted enlistment, and by the end of the war around 500 Black nurses had served in the ANC compared to roughly 59,000 white nurses.
In addition to serving under a strict quota system in a segregated Army, Black nurses also dealt with the racism that permeated the Army and American society at that time. Despite these difficult conditions and harsh restrictions, African American Army nurses served with distinction during the war, both at home and abroad. They served in Liberia with the 25th Station Hospital Unit, the first Black medical unit to deploy overseas, in the Southwest Pacific with the 268th Station Hospital, and in England with the 168th Station Hospital. They also served in Burma (now Myanmar) with the 383rd and 335th Station Hospitals, caring for Black soldiers building the Ledo Road, a 1,072-mile-long road connecting India and China.
Black Army nurses also served at station and general hospitals across the United States, caring for soldiers training and serving on the home front. Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama is perhaps one of the most well-known wartime training locations, where the famous Tuskegee Airmen received their pilot training. It is also where two nurses who are represented in the Museum’s collection, Lt. Louise Lomax and Maj. Della Raney, began their careers in the ANC. Lomax and Raney served in the ANC at a time of great change in the military and in society. They exemplify the extraordinary and groundbreaking service of African American women in the military, and their scrapbooks, which are part of the Museum’s collection, help to tell their story.
1st Lt. Louise Lomax
Louise Virginia Lomax was born in January 1920 in Nottoway, Virginia. She graduated from the Saint Philip Hospital School of Nursing in Richmond, Virginia, in September 1942. Lomax joined the ANC as a second lieutenant in March 1943 with the help of the NACGN. The following month she was assigned to the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, where she joined Lt. Della Raney, who was already serving there as Chief Nurse.
Tuskegee Army Air Field is perhaps best known as the home of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, a term most often attributed to the famous Black pilots who trained at Tuskegee during the war. However, the Tuskegee Airmen also include more than 10,000 Black men and women who supported those pilots, including civilian flight instructors, mechanics, cooks, supply personnel, and hospital staff.
Lt. Lomax was promoted to first lieutenant around June 1945. She is pictured being congratulated on her promotion by Col. Richard Cumming, Chief Surgeon at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Lt. Charles Robinson, who was also promoted, stands at center. Lt. Lomax is wearing a brown and white striped seersucker hospital uniform, including wrap dress, cap, and collar insignia. In the summer of 1944, this seersucker hospital uniform replaced the white hospital uniform for Army nurses serving in the U.S.
Lt. Lomax remained at Tuskegee for over three years before transferring away from Tuskegee during post-war demobilization in the summer of 1946. She was also apparently very well-liked by her fellow nurses and patients, as evidenced by the many glowing poems, notes, and inscribed photographs scattered throughout her scrapbook.
She is truly an angel of mercy,
Bringing joy and gladness each day.
With cheerful words, and a teasing smile,
She always keep her patients gay.
All is well the whole day through,
Each patient’s face is gleaming with light.
But oh! Suddenly the lights are dimmed,
When she leaves for heaven each night.
Gee! I hate to see her go,Aviation Cadet Cleveland Clark
Tho’ time say we all must part.
Now she’s leaving, but she’ll never know,
That with her she’ll be taking my heart.—"Especially For You" written for Lt. Lomax, February 12, 1944
While at Tuskegee, Lomax served under the supervision of Lt. Della Raney from April 1943 to July 1944. As Chief Nurse at Tuskegee, Raney had already made history twice during her short time in the ANC, and she would go on to achieve even more throughout her career.
Maj. Della Raney
Della Hayden Raney was born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1912. She graduated from the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, in 1937. With the onset of World War II in Europe, Raney was one of the first Black nurses to apply to the ANC but was rejected because of her race. However, when the Army eventually agreed to enlist Black nurses, bowing to pressure from the NACGN and other organizations, Raney became the first African American woman to join the ANC since 1918. She received her commission as a second lieutenant in the ANC in April 1941.
Lt. Raney was first stationed for training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with 23 other Black ANC nurses. In March 1942, she was promoted to first lieutenant, becoming the first African American in the ANC to achieve that rank. That same month, she transferred to the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where she again made history as the first African American to be appointed Chief Nurse in the ANC. It was also at Tuskegee that Raney earned the nickname “Maw Raney.”
Lt. Raney served as chief nurse at Tuskegee for over two years, where she supervised up to 20 Army nurses, including Lt. Louise Lomax. Raney was promoted to captain in June 1944, the second Black ANC nurse to achieve this rank and the first Black ANC nurse serving with the Army Air Forces to do so. She was transferred to Fort Huachuca in Arizona a month later, in July 1944, where she was appointed principal chief nurse at a new training center for African American nurses. Six months later, in January 1945, Captain Raney and 24 other Black nurses from Fort Huachuca were transferred to Camp Beale in California. Raney served as head of the nursing staff at Camp Beale until the end of the war.
Post-War in the Army Nurse Corps
The post-war period was a time of significant changes for Black nurses. During post-war demobilization, the military drastically decreased the number of women across all branches, including the ANC. The passage of the Army-Navy Nurses Act in 1947 established the Army and Navy Nurse Corps as permanent corps in the military, enabling nurses to receive permanent commissioned officer status. The passage of Executive Order 9981 in 1948 officially abolished segregation in the military, although it took several years before the military made the required changes. Also in 1948, the American Nurses Association (ANA) provided direct membership for Black nurses who had been barred from their state nurses’ associations, eliminating the need for Black nurses to gain membership in organizations that were known to discriminate against them.
With the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947 and the establishment of an Air Force nursing corps in 1949, roughly 1,200 nurses transferred from the Army to the Air Force. The NACGN, which had been instrumental in Black nurses gaining admission to the ANC during the war, disbanded in 1951 and the ANA assumed its functions. By the Korean War (1950–1953), African American military nurses were able to serve for the first time in integrated hospitals. As they had in previous conflicts, these women served with distinction in the U.S. and abroad, including Korea and Japan.
Lt. Louise Lomax remained at Tuskegee until the summer of 1946, when she was transferred to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Ohio. For her World War II service, she was awarded the American Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. In February 1948, Lomax was transferred to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., to train as a psychiatric nurse. She later served at Provident Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and at veterans hospitals in Downey, Illinois, and Perry Point, Maryland. In March 1949, while serving at Percy Jones General Hospital in Michigan, Lomax retired from active duty and transferred to the reserves. She was honorably discharged from the Army Nurse Corps in April 1953 after 10 years of service. Lomax married John Winters in November 1954 and had one daughter, Pia Winters Jordan. As a civilian, she worked as a psychiatric nurse at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., before retiring in June 1973. Louise Lomax Winters passed away in April 2011 and was buried at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Crewe, Virginia.
Capt. Della Raney was promoted to major in July 1946, once again becoming the first Black woman in the ANC to achieve that rank. She retired from active duty two months later and transferred to the reserves. For her World War II service, she was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, and possibly the American Defense Service Medal. Around this same time, she married her first husband, Nathanial Freeman, who served during the war as a major in the Army Air Corps with the 96th Service Group. They made their home in Oakland, California. Major Raney returned to active duty twice more: from December 1948 to February 1950 and from November 1950 to October 1953. During that time, she was stationed at a number of places at home and abroad, including Camp Beale, where she worked as Director of Nursing, Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, Percy Jones Army Hospital, and the Tokyo Army Hospital in occupied Japan. Additionally, she was inducted into the Association of Military Surgeons. Raney married her second husband, James S. Johnson, at this time as well.
By 1954, Raney was living in Detroit, Michigan, and serving in the Reserves with the 323rd General Hospital. Although the 323rd was an integrated unit, Raney was the only Black nurse on staff with the 323rd as of 1963, when she was working as assistant chief nurse. By 1963 Raney was also working as a head nurse at the veterans hospital in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1968, Raney’s third husband, Andrew L. Jackson, died tragically in a car accident. In 1978, after 37 years in the ANC, Major Raney retired from the military as the highest ranking African American nurse who had served in World War II. Della Raney Jackson passed away on October 23, 1987, in Detroit. She was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
A Lasting Legacy
Like the 18 Black nurses who came before them in 1918, and the almost 500 Black nurses who served with them during World War II, Lt. Louise Lomax and Maj. Della Raney broke new ground in the nursing profession and paved the way for generations of military nurses who came after them. During a time of great societal change, and in the face of extreme racism, they served their country honorably and proved beyond a doubt that African American women belonged not only in the Army Nurse Corps, but in all branches of the U.S. military.
BROWSE OBJECTS RELATING TO AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN IN THE MILITARY
Written by Patri O’Gan, Curatorial Research Assistant in Military History
Published on May 8, 2023