She made history 78 years ago today!
Today, the numbers of Black women in the armed forces are steadily on the rise, and the work of past veteran pioneers is regularly celebrated. However, that wasn’t always the case, and many people fought hard to serve this country and be acknowledged for it. Take WWII Black Women’s Army Corps for example, whose story resurfaced in recent years to give them their just due, which is also true for a woman named Phyllis Mae Daily, the first Black navy nurse. Here’s everything you never learned about her:
According to VA News, Dailey graduated from New York’s Lincoln School of Nursing and attended Teachers College at Columbia University where she pursued a public health degree. Dailey initially wanted to enlist in the United States Army or the Air Force, but was denied because of her race, NMAAHC reports. That’s when she decided to enlist with the Navy Nurses Corps. On March 8, 1945, she made history when she was sworn in as the first African-American Navy nurse to serve in World War II. The Corps having previously denied entry to Black women, Dailey was well aware of the importance of the moment and hoped that it would open doors for other Black applicants and force the military to accept them.
“I want to be just another nurse accepted into the service, and I’ll do a good job. That’s what’s expected of me. You can’t keep us back any longer; the new world is coming,” AAREG reports Dailey telling reporters shortly after her swearing in.
Dailey also happened to be a member of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, an organization actively advocating for inclusion within military service, which had the full backing of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mable Keaton Staupers, executive secretary of the Association. Both Roosevelt and Staupers argued that the implicit ban of Black nurses in service, since they were not officially prohibited after 1944, was wrong, advocating for all U.S. citizens to be able to participate in the war effort, regardless of race. Roosevelt also put pressure on the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and SPARS, the women’s arm of the Coast Guard, to open their ranks to Black women, BlackDoctor.org reports.
With Dailey’s induction as a Navy nurse, the mission grew legs, opening a door for other Black nurses to follow. Edith Mazie Devoe, Helen Fredericka Turner, and Eula Lucille Stimley all followed Dailey’s lead and in August 1945, when the war ended, the four women became the only active-duty Black nurses in the Navy Nurse Corps. SPARS officially integrated nearly a year prior in October 1944 and WAVES in December 1944. While it was impossible for Dailey to fully comprehend the far-reaching implications of her persistence, she had an idea at the time of the possibilities that could come from her own courage.
“[I] knew the barriers were going to be broken down eventually and felt the more applicants, the better the chances would be for each person,” said Dailey.
The Navy had officially ended race-based exclusion in January 1945, the Navy Nurse Corps being the last unit to accept African-Americans. Today, African-Americans make up about 30 percent of the almost 3,000 men and women in the Navy Nurse Corps. We honor Daily’s work and remember her contributions. Thank you for your service.
Everything you never learned about Phyllis Mae Dailey, the first Black Navy nurse/Cmdr. Thomas A. Gaylord swears in five new Navy nurses on March 8, 1945, Phyllis Mae Daily pictured second from right/Photo Courtesy of Department of Defense/Public Domain/Smithsonian Magazine