End of Racial Segregation in VA Hospitals

End of Racial Segregation in VA Hospitals

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The nation’s first federal system of veterans’ hospitals for the masses of Civil War volunteer soldiers—the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (VHA’s origins)—were racially integrated from the very beginning. The first African American Civil War veterans were admitted to the National Home’s Central Branch in Dayton, Ohio—now known as Dayton VA Medical Center—in March 1867. The attached 1880 census excerpt from the National Home in Dayton shows African American veterans housed in the same barracks as Caucasian veterans. They lived, worked, and dined with one another with no problems reported and racial harmony mentioned periodically in annual reports.

After the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case decision, the practice of “separate, but equal” accommodations based on race took hold in American society, especially in the South. When the National Home opened its new Mountain Branch in Johnson City, Tennessee, in 1903, veterans were segregated by race. Twenty years later the first federal veterans hospital established exclusively for African American veterans opened in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1923 for those who served in World War I. Today that historic hospital is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and known as the Tuskegee VA Medical Center. Two more segregated hospitals for African American veterans were proposed and considered by Congress in 1947, but the NAACP protested all efforts to do so and they never came to fruition.

On July 26, 1948, President Truman took a stance on segregation when he issued Executive Order No. 9981 to racially integrate the U.S. military and later ended a quota system that limited the number of African Americans in the military. The process was easier said than done and encountered many orchestrated roadblocks in implementation. Five years after the order was issued, desegregation of the military was still not completed. President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed the matter further along when he came into office. He adopted desegregation as one of his key missions and in his first State of the Union address on January 1953, he said, “To be true to one’s own freedom is, in essence, to honor and respect the freedom of all others. A cardinal idea in this heritage we cherish is the equality of rights of all citizens of every race and color and creed. . . I propose to use whatever authority exists in the office of the President to end segregation in the District of Columbia, including the Federal Government, and any segregation in the Armed Forces.”

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Two weeks after Eisenhower’s State of the Union speech, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell called for an inquiry into racial segregation practices at the Nashville and Murfreesboro VA hospitals. Then-VA Administrator Carl Gray, Jr., stated that racial segregation at VA hospitals was “in accordance with local customs,” which brought further scrutiny of VA by Congress and the President. Gray departed shortly afterwards and his successor, Harvey Higley, became VA Administrator in July 1953. Higley was a staunch conservative, “dyed in the wool Republican,” and close friend of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but surprisingly he took quick action on the matter. On September 23, 1953, Higley informed VA hospital directors that racial segregation had to end and that an accelerated process would be implemented to do so. The process took nearly a year but two months after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case ended racial segregation in public schools, VA announced that racial segregation in its hospitals had officially ended.

Photos: top – a dispensary in DC, 1950s, Library of Congress; bottom left – Harvey Higley, VA Administrator, University of Wisconsin; bottom right

Story by VA Historian

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