“At the beginning of the war the Red Cross would not accept blood donations from Negroes at all.”
– The Core of America’s Race Problem
Slavery had been abolished in the United States in 1865. But racial segregation in the form of discriminatory Jim Crow laws had since become the policy in many states, particularly in the South. This “separate but equal” doctrine was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1896, with only one dissenting vote, in Plessy v. Ferguson. That was why the Pentagon, built in Virginia, contained double the number of rest room facilities. President Franklin Roosevelt decided to override Virginia’s Jim Crow laws with an executive order forbidding such discrimination, justifying the decision by noting that the Pentagon was on federal, not state, property. When the United States formally entered World War II, civil rights leaders saw an opportunity to tear down at least some of the barriers of discrimination that affected African American life, even in the North. But entrenched prejudice was not to be so easily overcome. When the American Red Cross announced a nationwide blood drive to build up that blood supply needed for the military, African Americans lined up with other patriotic Americans to donate blood – but they were turned away.
“American Red Cross Bans Negro Blood!” and similar headlines appeared in newspapers across the nation. The Red Cross quickly found itself in the middle of a civil rights and negative publicity firestorm.
In response to the furor, American Red Cross chairman Norman H. Davis met with the Surgeons General of the Army and Navy to work out a new blood drive policy. The new policy was approved by the Secretaries of War and of the Navy on Jan. 21, 1942. But instead of quelling the controversy, it set off a whole new firestorm of outrage. Under the new policy, Negro blood would be accepted, but in line with the Jim Crow doctrine of “separate but equal,” it would be processed and dispensed separately “so that those receiving transfusions may be given plasma from blood of their own race.” On Jan. 29, 1942, the New York Times, under the headline “Red Cross to Use Blood of Negroes,” ran an article that noted this change in policy was both “hailed and condemned.” A delegation led by Rep. Vito Marcantonio of New York met with chairman Davis, “to protest against discrimination in the nation’s ‘victory program’” and insisted that “this policy of segregating the blood of Negro and white donors does not represent the wishes of the American people.” Rep. Marcantonio said that in his response Mr. Davis “told us he recognized the scientific fact that there is no difference between the blood of Negroes and whites.” Another member of the delegation, Ferdinand Smith, national secretary of the National Maritime Union and a spokesman for black and white labor members, said, “This policy plays into the hands of those who seek to divide the American people by setting race against race.” Juan B. Emmanueli, editor of the Spanish language newspaper Eco Antillano, added, “Similar discrimination has been practiced against Latin American people.”
On July 4, 1942, an article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association officially weighed in against the policy, stating in part: “The segregation of the blood of white persons from the blood of Negroes in the blood ban is not only unscientific but is a grievous affront to the largest minority in our country.”
In September 1942, an editorial in the Chicago newspaper Defender scathingly thundered, “No Negro blood accepted but – when the American Red Cross set up its first blood collection center in New York for our own armed forces, it was a Negro surgeon who was selected to supervise the entire project and expand the system to every city in the U.S.” And “When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and maimed hundreds of American soldiers and sailors, it was blood collected by a Negro surgeon that saved their lives.” Despite this continued outrage, and overwhelming medical evidence to the contrary that even Mr. Davis conceded, Jim Crow trumped scientific fact. The policy remained in place throughout the war.