The Civil Rights Movement and the Blood Supply

By Emily Largent

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and this semester, I have been fortunate enough to take a class on the Civil Rights Movement with Professor Randall Kennedy.  This has prompted me to examine the influence of race on healthcare delivery in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.  Racism infected all aspects of the healthcare system, including medical schools and schools of nursing, residencies and post-graduate training, professional societies for doctors and nurses, ambulance services, outpatient clinics, staff privileges at hospitals, hospital admissions, and medical research.  Doubtlessly, the color line in medicine compounded physical ills with emotional and dignitary harms.

I find the stories related to the segregation of the American blood supply during World War II to be particularly interesting because they show that discrimination was a national (i.e., not just a Southern) problem, and there is a small connection to Harvard Law School.  Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South by John Egerton has proven to be an excellent source of information on this topic.

Blacks made contributions to the war effort in many capacities.  William H. Hastie, a graduate of Harvard Law School, took leave from his position as Dean at Howard University School of Law (HUSL) to accept an appointment as civilian aide to Secretary of War Stimson.  Charles R. Drew, a physician who had conducted pioneering research on typing, preserving, and storing blood for later transfusion, helped both Britain and the United States establish blood programs to support military operations. In February 1941, Drew was made medical director of the American Red Cross blood bank program.

Late in 1941, the surgeons general of the United States Army and Navy informed the Red Cross that only blood from white donors would be accepted for military use.  Although it had been conclusively proven that there were no racial differences in blood, the military yielded to prevailing social bias and heavy political pressure.  In January 1942, the War Department revised its position, agreeing to accept blood from black donors, though also insisting on rigid adherence to segregation of the blood supply.  The Red Cross not only accepted that decision but declared that it had no interest in trying to settle racial-social controversies.  Later, Red Cross officials “suggested that those who persisted in criticizing the policy were unpatriotically attempting to cripple the blood donor service and thus harm the war effort itself.” 

Angered, Drew resigned from the Red Cross, “declaring publicly that the racial segregation of blood was contrary to scientific fact–and an insult to patriotic black Americans.” Hastie stayed at the War Department for another year, fighting to change the policy, though he too would resign in 1943.  Hastie resumed the HUSL deanship and continued to speak out against segregation in the military and elsewhere.

Both men received the Spingarn Medal, which is given by the NAACP to honor “the highest or noblest achievement by an American Negro during the preceding year or years.”  Hastie received the Medal in 1943 and Drew in 1944.  Hastie was named to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals–the highest judicial position attained by an African-American at the time–in 1949.  Unfortunately, Drew died in a car crash near Burlington, North Carolina on April 1, 1950, despite receiving prompt medical care for his injuries.  It was erroneously reported at the time that Drew died from loss of blood after an all-white hospital refused to admit him.

The government rescinded its policy on blood segregation eight months after Drew’s death.  Egerton writes: “[T]he blood of all Americans at last had only one meaningful color: red.”

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About elargent

Emily graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Georgetown University in 2004 with a BS in Science, Technology, and International Affairs. Emily continued her education at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, graduating summa cum laude in 2006 with a BS in Nursing, after which she worked as a cardiothoracic intensive care unit nurse. From 2008 to 2010, Emily was a fellow in the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health. Emily was a Petrie-Flom Center Student Fellow during the 2014-2015 academic year.