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.”  Continue reading