Covid-19 | A Challenge to Black British Nurses: Finish the Fight for Healthy Black communities

By Thomas L Blair 25 July 2020 ©

The ravages of COVID-19 ignited a firestorm of webinars asking “Who is Caring for BME Nurses and Midwives” and discussing “Racism: Nurses as activists for equality”. But these are not new issues. Campaigners need to tap the cultural vein of their forebears The Black Cross nurses that led an historic struggle to treat and promote healthy Black communities.

Proud and progressive, the Universal African Black Cross Nurses founded in America in 1920 swept across the Black World’s outposts with a model of self-help and mutual aid, sorely needed today.

At first it was the pain of brutal anti-Black laws, of lack of access to nursing training, and unequal care to Black patrons that drove them to action.  “We’re tired of the white people being so mean. They rather see blacks die”.

Then came the vision “we need to uplift people and their health in community”. A cadre of activists led the way, including founder Henrietta Vinton Davis and field generals Amy Jacques Garvey, Maymie De Mena and Vivian Wilhelmina Seay – a powerful attraction to aspiring young women.

Action followed on the frontlines of social reform. With the nation’s Red Cross programs in mind, Black Cross nurses sought “the improvement of health, the prevention of disease and mitigation of suffering”. They trained and certified professionals and volunteers to work in the poorest most health-at-risk districts.

Their Health and Wellness Social Services addressed the ills of the time. They soothed troubled minds, advised expectant mothers, cared for the elderly and counselled errant youth and men. Their relief packages clothed and fed the needy and they collected medical supplies to send to Africa. Moreover, the Black Cross nurses tended the ailing victims of the 1918-19 “Spanish Flu” and the 1957-58 “Asian Flu” Pandemics.

In addition, local chapters marched in parades, sang in choirs and trawled the streets for converts. All in white uniforms their caps were adorned with a black cross encircled by a red background with a green centre. This united them for Black advancement and renewal.

By 1960 the Black Cross Nurses had provided nurses, education and health care access to tens of thousands. They ranged from Harlem, the nation’s Black Mecca, across thirty-eight US states, Central America,and the British and Spanish Caribbean – Jamaica, Trinidad, Belize, Panama and Cuba – as well as Nova Scotia, Canada.

In many ways, the organization was an auxiliary of Marcus Garvey’s social reform movement. Dedicated campaigners were publicly active and held positions of community leadership for the first time.

With him they believed that “living upon the mercies shown by others, and by the chances obtainable, and have suffered there from, so we will in the future suffer if an effort is not made now to adjust our own affairs”.

Analysis of this treasure trove shows that health and caring is more than a charitable issue. It is not separate from the unnerving reality of the Black experience. It’s a political thrust against too often wilfully blind authorities touting the balm of sometime-in-the-future salvation.

Therefore as Black Britain and the African Diaspora cope with Covid-19 and multiple crises, partisans can give new life to an historic legacy.

Organised self-help and mutual aid are the Protective Peoples Equipment for strong Black action — the best guarantor of good health for Black nurses, staff and communities.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Black Cross Nurses March in Harlem New York 1924