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Salaria Kea: A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain

A pamphlet issued by the Negro Committee to Aid Spain with the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, New York, 1938. Reprinted by the Bay Area Post February 6, 1977, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Introduction by Marion Merriman Wachtel, Commander of that Post.

What have Negroes to do with Spain? What has Spain for us? What about Ethiopia? Why should Negro men be fighting in Spain? What do we expect out of it? These are the questions Negroes are continuously asking. It is their immediate response to any appeal for Spain. Quite apart from the broad question of humanitarianism the answers are simple.

Fascist Italy invaded and overpowered Ethiopia. This was a terrible blow to Negroes throughout the world. Ethiopia represented the last outpost of Negro authority, of Negro self-government. Hundreds of Negroes in this country attempted to join the Ethiopian forces. But Ethiopia at that time was so remote that few succeeded. I say 1/2 at that time' advisedly. Since then the rapid move of world events has brought Europe and the Orient much closer to local thinking and knowledge.

Even at that time thousands of dollars were collected from people in all the liberty loving countries of the world. Sweden and Denmark sent ambulances and medical supplies. Negroes from New York sent a 75 bed field hospital and 2 tons of medical supplies. They sent two delegations to the Emperor Haile Selassie. They brought two Ethiopian delegations to this country to win supported for Ethiopia. A young white physician from Evanston, Illinois was the first foreign casualty. He was killed in an Italian-fascist airplane raid on the Ethiopian field hospitals. Germany and Italy and Japan conspicuously sent nothing except poison gas with which to slaughter the Ethiopians.

Italy moved on from the invasion of Ethiopia. She advanced her troops into Spain. Here was a second small nation, feudal and undeveloped. Bitter resentment against Italy still rankled. The hundreds of Negro boys who had been prevented from going to Ethiopia understood the issues more clearly now. To them Spain was now the battlefield on which Italian fascism might be defeated. And perhaps Italy defeated in Spain would be forced to withdraw from Ethiopia, Ethiopia's only hope for recovery lies in Italy's defeat. The place to defeat Italy now is in Spain.

The lynching of Negroes in America, discrimination in education and on jobs, lack of hospital facilities for Negroes in most cities and very poor ones in others, all this appeared to them as part of the picture of fascism: of a dominant group impoverishing and degrading a less powerful group. The open pronouncements of Germany and Italy against all non-Aryans is convincing evidence. Thinking thus, hundreds of Negro men went to Spain. Here in the international Brigade of Volunteers they found other Negroes. From Djibouti, Emperor Haile Selassie's chief mechanic came �to strike a blow for a free Ethiopia.' From South Africa, from Cuba, from French Senegal, from Haiti, from the Cameroon's, Negroes came, stayed and fought.

Negro physicians came to man hospitals and serve the wounded. Negro ambulance drivers and stretchers. And one young Negro nurse.

Childhood

Salaria Kea's life began much as the life of millions of other Negro girls in this country. Her father was a workingman. His job as attendant at the State Hospital for the Insane paid a small wage. His family was constantly increasing. There were all the usual elements of tragedy and frustration. There were the sacrifices of the older children that a younger one might have the education which economic circumstances and the lack of adequate provisions on the part of Government made otherwise impossible. There were all the conflicts of racial prejudice and the limitation it imposes on every Negro child in this country.

When Salaria was six months old her father was stabbed to death by a patient at the State Hospital for the Insane. The hospital was understaffed. Difficult patients could easily overpower a lone attendant. His meagre wages permitted no margin for saving. Compensation was negligible. His widow took their four small children to Akron, Ohio. There they lived with friends of Mr. Kee's youth. Two years later Mrs. Kee returned to Georgia. Here she married a farmer. She had known him from childhood there in Millageville. The children stayed on with friends in Akron, Ohio.

Mrs. Jackson took them to her home. Mrs. Jackson's husband was a bellhop at the Country Club at Akron. Her husband therefore had only uncertain tips as earnings. Besides they had five children of their own. Public provision for the care of dependent Negro children, even in the North, has always lagged far behind that provided for white children. And provision for white children, except in isolated instances, is far behind the standard of normal decency that an advanced country like ours should sustain. Twenty-six years ago conditions were worse.

Mr. Jackson's "tips" could not stretch very well over a family of eleven. When Salaria's brother Andrew was nine years old he left school. Grocer's delivery boy was the best job he could find. The wage was $1.50 a week. Shortly afterward George and Arthur left school and went to work.

They carefully kept Salaria in school. She was bright in her studies and active in athletics. At Akron's Central High School she was told that she could not play on the basketball team because "no Negro had ever been admitted on the team." In speaking of this Salaria says, "I was very despondent, naturally. But, my brothers told me to keep going, not to let this stop me."

The brothers then took the case to the school board and finally secured her transfer to West High School. The right to enter athletic activities there without restriction, was specified. That was her first realization that one does not accept and submit to unfair practices. One resists and fights.

Training and Work at Harlem Hospital

During the summer vacations Salaria worked in the office of Dr. Bedford Riddle, successful Negro physician of Akron, Ohio. She had graduated from High School when Dr. Riddle persuaded her to take up the profession of nursing. Upon his advice she entered Harlem Hospital Training School.

Harlem Hospital has a mixed staff, Negro and white, in most departments. Yet within the institution there were sharp practices of racial discrimination. In the dining room this was quite noticeable. Certain tables were reserved for white workers. Ranking white staff members ate in private dining rooms while Negro members of the same rank ate in the common dining room. Older Negro nurses cautioned that this had always been so and nothing could be done about it. One day Salaria entered the dining room with a group of her fellow students. They found only one vacant table so seated themselves there. The waitress refused to serve them saying that this table was reserved for white social workers. The dietician confirmed this. At once the five students rose, gathered up the ends of the cloth and dumped the table over.

Conditions at Harlem Hospital had been "smelly" for a long time. When news of this story leaked out the Mayor sent a committee to investigate the conditions. By that time the students had organized themselves and were ready with certain basic demands. These were:

   1. Discontinue racial discrimination in the dining room.
   2. Appoint one Negro dietician to the staff now composed of five white.
   3. Grant more authority to the charge nurses who now function merely as straw bosses and petty foremen.

All these demands were met at once.

That was Salaria's first experience in-group action, in organised, programmatic resistance to injustice. Previously her brothers had assisted her in each situation. Usually she was the only Negro involved. When one place did not concede they moved her on to another. Now she was learning to resist, to organize and change conditions. She emerged with a strong new feeling of group identity. This was 1933.

In 1934 Salaria was graduated at Harlem Hospital Training School. After a brief service at Sea View Hospital she returned as a regular member of the Harlem Hospital staff. She was assigned to service in the obstetrical division. For some time there had been rumblings of the desperate conditions at Harlem Hospital. Now as a nurse with responsibility Salaria began to feel the force and meaning of these things. The ward was overcrowded and understaffed. One nurse in charge of a maternity ward and a nursery of fifty babies. Fifty babies to be fed and cleaned three times each night - one hundred and fifty feedings and one-hundred and fifty changes, and one nurse to do it. In addition there was the ward for abnormals. This usually contained about twelve babies and as many infected or abnormal mothers, many infected with communicable diseases. These, of course, should have been isolated and cared for by one nurse exclusively. Sometimes these diseased mothers wandered off into the ward of healthy babies. Once Salaria found one of these women feeding a healthy baby with milk left by her own diseased child.

She wrote a report calling attention to these conditions. Immediately she was transferred to the delivery room and warned to "mind her own work." Ordinarily two nurses assist each physician in a delivery case. Here Salaria found herself alone with three deliveries in three separate rooms and of course three different doctors.

That summer infantile diarrhoea spread through the hospital. Daily from three to five babies died. People in the street began to grumble among themselves referring to the hospital as the "Death House." The hospital continued admitting new patients. No extra measures were undertaken to curb the epidemic. Discontent finally crystallized in organized protest. A picket line was thrown around the hospital demanding an investigation into the deaths of so many babies, and that the maternity ward be closed during this investigation. These demands were met. Analysis of the doctors' monthly report stating the true cause of death of patients was compared with the final report sent monthly to the department of hospitals. It became apparent that the department of hospitals was not being accurately informed of conditions. A public investigation followed, serious conditions were exposed and Salaria learned that the individual is only as secure as the group.

Republican Spain

Salaria's activities cantered with the more progressive nurses. Together they attended lectures and discussions on civic affairs, local, national, international. These discussions helped her to understand what was happening in Harlem and it's relationship to events in Europe and Africa. German fascism and its attack on Races, Italy's raid on Ethiopia. Now Spain. When Italy invaded Ethiopia she was ready. With groups of Harlem nurses and physicians she assisted in gathering the first two tons of medical supplies and dressings sent from this country to Ethiopia. She was active in the drive Harlem physicians initiated and which resulted in a 75 bed field hospital being sent to Ethiopia.

When Mussolini advanced his Italian troops from Ethiopia into Spain she understood that this was the same fight. She had developed enough to understand it. On March 27, 1937 she sailed from New York with the second American Medical Unit to Republican Spain. A party of twelve nurses and physicians. Salaria was the only Negro in this group. Hundreds of Negro boys had preceded her. They had gone as soldiers, physicians, and ambulance drivers. She was the first Negro woman to go.

It was April third when the party reached Port Bou, Spain. A huge delegation of Spanish men, women and children came down to welcome them. A small boy left the crowd and came over .to Salaria. Taking her hand he complained softly,

"Why didn't you come yesterday?"

"Why yesterday?" Salaria asked him.

"Because yesterday the fascists came in their planes and dropped bombs. My mother and my father and my small brothers died. We had no doctors and nurses to care for them after the bombs struck. Stay here. If the fascists return with bombs maybe all of us would be killed if you don't stay here."

Official instructions directed that they set up their hospital at Villa Paz near Madrid. Villa Paz had been the summer home of King Alfonso XIII, deserted since his abdication in 1931. It was a beautiful, low, white palace set in a lovely garden. There was a brilliantly tiled swimming pool screened by tall cypress trees. The palace was now occupied by cows and goats. The peasants still lived in the cramped, damp hovels. The floors were dirt. For heat they burned dry cow dung on top of a tile stove built in the corner. The peasants were so accustomed to poverty and hardship that even now they did not dare move into the King's abandoned palace. Instead they turned it over to the cattle.

This was Salaria's first concrete example of discrimination where race was not a factor. Here it was peasantry versus nobility. The peasants had previously accepted the belief that nothing could be done about it just as Harlem nurses bad earlier accepted racial discrimination in the hospital dining room. Like the Harlem nurses the peasants were now learning that something could be done about it. One resisted, one fought, liberty could be a reality. There was nothing inviolable about the old prejudices. They could be changed and justice established.

The American Medical Unit, with the authorization of the Republican Government of Spain, turned the cows out at once. They cleaned the building and set up the first American base hospital in Spain. The cows went back to live in the mud floored huts of the peasants.

The palace was exquisite. There was plumbing throughout. Only water seldom ran in the pipes. The nurses and patients collected enough money among themselves to install a gasoline pump - which ran sometimes. There were four bathrooms. The peasants had never known until now just what they were for.

The palace was electrified. But the wiring system was obsolete. Often in the midst of a critical operation doctors and nurses found themselves suddenly in darkness. Many patients died as a result. Again the nurses and doctors and patients contributed - this time 1,800 pesetas. With this they installed a reliable, modern power service.

It had never occurred to the King to screen his lavish palace. Palaces are feudal in their splendour. Often they entirely overlook simple sanitation. Flies and mosquitoes were a constant menace to wounded men. Again the medical staff pooled limited personal funds. They bought screening, built frames, cut out new windows, built doors. The former stables were converted into a long dining room, with an ample kitchen opening onto it. All the work was done by the patients, assisted and directed by the nursing staff and personnel. Busy days. So much to do, so little with which to do! Fuel was scarce, water uncertain and food poor, mostly beans and rancid olive oil. They were often hungry.

The young Spanish women who helped them were between 15 and 30 years of age. None could read and write. The new Government was making every effort to liquidate illiteracy. (Forty-five percent of the people were illiterate when the war broke in 1936. This number has been reduced by twenty percent now.) Two wounded Spanish-American soldiers volunteered to teach as they convalesced. In six months Villa Paz had liquidated its illiteracy. Everybody could read and write.

The American Base Hospital at Villa Paz

The hospital beds were soon filled with soldiers of every degree of injury and ailment, of almost every known race and tongue and from every corner of the earth. Czechs from Prague, and from Bohemian villages, Hungarians, French, Finns. Peoples from democratic countries who recognized Italy and Germany's invasion in Spain as a threat to the peace and security of all small countries. Germans and Italians, exiled or escaped from concentration camps and fighting for their freedom here on Spain's battle line. Ethiopians from Djibouti, seeking to rec6up Ethiopia's freedom by strangling Mussolini's forces here in Spain. Cubans, Mexicans, Russians, Japanese, unsympathetic with Japan's invasion of China and the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo axis. There were poor whites and Negroes from the Southern States of the United States. These divisions of race and creed and religion and nationality lost significance when they met in Spain in a united effort to make Spain the tomb of fascism. The outcome of the struggle in Spain implies the death or the realization of the hopes of the minorities of the world.

Salaria saw that her fate, the fate of the Negro Race, was inseparably tied up with their fate; that the Negro's efforts must be allied with those of other minorities as the only insurance against an uncertain future. And in Spain she worked with freedom. Her services were recognized. For the first time she worked free of racial discrimination or limitations.

There were not too many skilled hands to make the wounded comfortable. Everybody's services were conscripted. Nurses taught carpenters to make hospital supplies - shock blocks, back rests, Balkan frames for fractured arms, Fire and fuel they needed desperately.

Fascists have captured Spain's coalmines and they are now being worked by German industrialists. Two years of war and all Spain's trees have been burned for fuel. One morning in a cold rain they brought in a young French soldier. A leg had to be amputated immediately. There was no time to warm him - and no fuel even, had there been time. Instead of rallying the patient collapsed with shock and chill. The building was clammy cold.

"Pack his bed with hot water bottles," the doctor ordered. Collectively the nurses puffed at little oil stoves which refused to take fire with dilute kerosene. It seemed horrible to watch this young chap die when so simple a thing as hot water could save him. They were all very young nurses. Helplessly they looked at each other.

Salaria glanced at the clock, noted it was approaching lunchtime and soup should be boiling. Nimbly she gathered up hot water bottles, ran down the stairs and, unnoticed, into the kitchen. With a big pitcher she filled the three hot water bottles with steaming soup. The patient recovered.

Another time the fires were going but the pump had broken down so there was no hot water. A special diet patient needed soft-boiled eggs at careful intervals. Wine is on every Spanish table. A pitcher of wine was soon boiling on the stove and the patient had his eggs on schedule.

The days passed. Long hours of work with night indistinguishable from day. Monday was quite the same as Saturday. But Sunday was different. They could always tell Sunday. As early as seven o'clock in the morning the peasants arrived. Tiny burroughs drew little canvas-covered carts loaded with their women folks and children. They came to the Hospital Americano for help. Infants a month old, blind children, children covered with ulcers - usually the result of no medical care or health education. (The Loyalists are fighting for education and social service.) Sometimes they brought a chicken or a young goat in their arms as a thanks offering. Often fresh eggs, a real service to special diet cases. The milk and medical supplies sent from America were shared with these undernourished children. Cod Liver Oil to rickety babies and warm clothing, often from the limited personal supply of the nurses. So much need everywhere. The nurses and medical staff gave away their personal belongings when supplies were slow coming from America.

Negro Soldiers in Spain

When Salaria went to Spain hundreds of Negro men had already recognized Spain's fight for liberty and freedom as part of their own struggle. Oliver Law, Walter Garland, Douglas Roach, Milton Herndon were on the Jarama front. The brigade had been one hundred and twenty days in the trenches. Oliver Law was commanding. They say it was his turn for a leave. He had come over with the first American volunteers to Spain and had not had a day's leave. He was delighted at the thought of a Negro nurse coming, and prepared to welcome her. But, the story goes, from months in the trenches his clothes were in rags. He had no shoes and his underwear showed through rents in his trousers.

He was in excellent spirits. He called the Negro chaps together and suggested that they draw straws, the one drawing the shortest should go in his stead. Douglas Roach drew that one. The others watched him eagerly as he dressed himself for the occasion. Doug's wardrobe was in good shape despite months in the trenches. He had an amazing technique for successful foraging. He would have loaned the outfit to Law but Doug was short, and Law inches taller.

Later Salaria had Doug as a patient. He came to Villa Paz with a deep shrapnel wound in his shoulder. Recovery was never complete. He was furloughed home and died some months later. She nursed Lieutenant Garland when he was wounded a second time. This was in the same battle in which Oliver Law was killed. Garland was twice a patient at Villa Paz. Salaria describes him:

"Garland could never be convinced that he was wounded and not fit for the front lines. Every morning he would ask, �Will the doctor send me back to my brigade. Those boys need me.' One-day planes flew low over the hospital continuously. At supper check up Garland was missing. About ten o'clock next morning the Brigade headquarters telephoned our Commandant to know if we were missing any patients. Two Americans, an Englishman and a Frenchman had reported for duty. It was Garland and his companions. Anti-fascist fighters never felt they were unfit for action as long as they could walk."

At the Front

Early in April (1938) the order came to move to the front. Every nurse as well as every fighting man who goes to Spain looks forward impatiently to the day when he can be in the thick of the fighting instead of serving "behind the lines." Three doctors, six nurses, a corps of carpenters, mechanics, orderlies and a convoy of three ambulances, two trucks and equipment to set up a field hospital. They set up their unit outside a small town near Teruel. The first two days were quiet. From the village each morning the women and children and old men went out to work in their fields. At sunset they returned to their small houses. At evening the third day fascist planes flew low, dropping bombs. Next day no one went to the field. Most of them were dead. The wounded were brought to the American field hospital for first aid. From there they were evacuated to the base hospital at Pueblo De Canada. That night the field hospital convoy moved farther setting up their unit near Pueblo De.

Salaria describes those days at Pueblo De. "That evening about seven o'clock patients began to pour in by hundreds. All that night we worked to treat well as many as possible and start them on the way further behind the front lines. When morning came we had nineteen patients left. These were wounded so badly that it did not seem safe to move them. By eight o'clock that morning we were visited by five fascist planes. These flew very low and slowly over our unit. For about twenty minutes they circled, close above us then flew away. Within an hour they were back. This time they were ten. They turned their machine guns on us and began firing - terrifically, continuously. No one was injured and they flew away after a while. At 11:15 fifteen planes returned. This time they were con fronted by seven Government planes and together they battled just over our hospital unit. We could hear the stray bullets as they fell through the olive trees."

"In about thirty minutes the seven Government planes had driven back the fifteen fascist planes. During all this we had plenty of work to do and so we continued. At 1:25 about twenty-five planes came over in formations of one, two, and three. Long before they reached our camp they began dropping bombs. We could hear them falling and also see them. I was sitting under a tree eating dinner with the American Dr. Pike. The bombs were falling closer and closer, even closer than I realized until Dr. Pike suggested that we move into a trench nearby. We did. When I settled myself in the trench I recall seeing Dr. Barsky. After that I heard one explosion, then I went to sleep. I was waked by Dr. Barsky shouting to know if I was hurt. I told him, "No." I heard screams. Helen Freeman, an American nurse, had been badly wounded. A Spanish nurse, and later we learned, an English nurse were also seriously injured. Many of the patients had been killed. Already newly wounded were being brought in. We began at once to work on them. Suddenly we ran out of sterile supplies. Just up the hill our mobile operating car was parked in charge of an American ambulance driver. Two of us rushed up the hill to get more supplies. When we reached the ambulance the driver was lying outside with his head blown away."

The next morning the hospital contingent was ordered to evacuate. The fascists had broken through the lines. They journeyed all that night. The roads had been ploughed up by fascist bombs. Once they picked up empty shells exploded from Franco's guns. Marks on the shells indicated they were made by an American firm. (The American embargo is on arms to the legal, republican government of Spain. Germany and Italy are free to buy arms from any country and send them to Franco. So there is really no restriction against arms to the fascists.)

Next morning they set up the field hospital. It was thirty-six hours since they had eaten. Hundreds of wounded had been served in the interval. The journey over shelled roads had been difficult. Before completing the hospital they built a fire in the field, in preparation for a meal. The fire was hardly kindled when enemy planes began strafing the field. The hospital was cut off from the lines by enemy fire. Two ambulances were captured, four doctors lost. Many of the staff swam the Ebro River to safety.

Salaria was lost from her unit. She hitchhiked and by slow stages rejoined the American medical unit near Barcelona. Here they set up a 4,000 bed hospital. They were pitifully short of the most commonplace supplies. Many seriously wounded patients had to go with bandages unchanged for days because there were no surgical dressings. Patients who were able to sit up washed their soiled dressings in the early morning and had them waiting for the doctors and nurses when they came to redress them.

Barcelona was under continual bombardment at this time. Children's colonies became the special target of fascist bombardment. After bombardments the nurses accompanied the ambulance to the scene. They carried small spades. First with their hands they entered on the broken fragments of human bodies - brains, limbs, a section of head. After that they felt with their hands under the soft loose earth. They saved the spade for last. There might be danger of striking some body not dead and who might have a chance of recovery. At second depth they used the spade.

One morning the ambulance and nurses was sent to one of the children's colonies. A bomb had torn the building in half. One hundred and fifty' children had been killed. Salaria was digging at the third level. A tiny hand protruded. A bright calico sleeve covered the arm. She put aside the shovel and began gently disengaging the earth about, so that no further injury would be done the child to whom the arm must belong. With all the earth aside she lifted carefully. There was only the little arm. A distracted Mother rushed across the street and hugged the arm to her breast moaning, "My baby, my baby."

So many tragedies she shared with the Spanish people! Her face became a familiar one in Spanish papers and movie houses. (She appeared in two movies in this country - "Heart of Spain", and "Return to Life".) Several times the Republican Government dispatches cited her for courage and efficiency. More and more Spain's cause seemed to her the cause of minority groups throughout the world.

It was in March when her hospital unit suffered a particularly heavy bombardment. The group was eating dinner under the trees and counting the bullets that splattered about the field from the low flying enemy planes. Suddenly the signal was given "Cover! In the trenches!" Lying flat, face burled in the earth floor of the trench she heard a tremendous explosion. Some time later she was uncovered and dug out from under six feet of rock, shell and earth. A bomb had exploded at the end of the trench.

The resulting injury left her unfit for further hospital service. She was furloughed home. She reported at once for service with the Medical Bureau in New York. She has given particular attention to securing medical supplies - so desperately needed - for the people in Spain. Her experience with them gives her first hand knowledge of the great need. It is difficult, she says to see so much goods everywhere and to recall bow many times a patient's life was lost from infection just because there was no surgical dressing or the simplest of antiseptics. And so during these months of convalescing Salaria Kee is travelling through the country urging aid to the people of Spain, medical aid, food.

"Negro men have given up their lives there," she says, "as courageously as any heroes of any age. Surely Negro people will just as willingly give of their means to relieve the suffering of a people attacked by the enemy of all racial minorities, - fascism - and it's most aggressive exponents - Italy and Germany.