60th Anniversary of Desegregation in VA hospitals

On July 28, 1954, VA officially ended racial segregation in its hospitals.

VHA’s first hospitals, opened under its predecessor the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, were racially integrated from the very beginning when the first African American veterans, who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, were admitted to the Central Branch (now Dayton VAMC) in Ohio in March 1867. According to National Home annual reports, veterans of all races got along well, dined together, and no problems arose.

After the 1896 landmark Supreme Court case, Plessy V. Ferguson, a “separate, but equal” culture of rigid racial segregation evolved in American society, including Federal facilities, particularly in the South.  In 1903, the new National Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, (now known as Mountain Home VAMC) opened with segregated barracks. On February 12, 1923, the first segregated, all-black veterans hospital was dedicated by the Veterans Bureau in Tuskegee, Alabama. Two additional segregated hospitals in Franklin County, Virginia, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi were proposed a bills in Congress but were never fully approved.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to call for a policy of inclusion in national defense programs, six months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in Executive Order 8802.  Seven year later, in July 1948, President Harry Truman carried it further and issued Executive Order 9981 to integrate the military and government contracting opportunities. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s February 2, 1953 State of the Union address announced his intention to integrate the entire Federal government. 

Within a week of Eisenhower’s address, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell called for an inquiry into racial segregation at the Nashville and Murfreesboro VA hospitals and set the wheels of change into motion at VA.  On May 4, 1953, VA Administrator Carl Gray, Jr. stated that racial segregation at those hospitals was “in accordance with local customs,” which brought further scrutiny from Congress and the President.  Gray was soon replaced by Harvey Higley who embarked on an ambitious accelerated program and  got the job done in record time.

Two months after the May 17, 1954 Supreme Court case decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka officially ended segregation in public schools, VA announced that racial integration of its hospitals was complete.


Photo: Public Health Service dispensary #32, Washington, D.C., 1920s, Library of Congress





Story by VA Historian, Washington DC


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