Thursday, April 25, 2024

A Fight for Equality

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Captain Susan Freeman

Stratford Veterans Museum

Sources:  The Army Nurse Corps Association

Negro Army Nurse Corps of the 25th Station Hospital Unit in Liberia, 1943 via National Archives at College Park

Captain Susan Freeman grew up in Stratford, graduated Stratford High School in 1921, and went on to earn her nursing degree and master’s degree.

In 1926, she graduated from Freedman’s Hospital School of Nursing, Washington, DC. After graduation, she participated in post-graduate studies at Howard University, and The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, and Columbia University, New York. She was employed at Freedman’s Hospital as a Staff Nurse, Head Nurse, ER Nurse, and Supervisor of the Outpatient Department before joining the Army in April, 1941. Freedmen’s Hospital is the teaching hospital for the Howard University Medical School. The Freedmen’s Hospital was founded in 1862 in Washington, D.C. It was the first hospital of its kind to aid in the medical treatment of formerly enslaved people.

In 1941, when the military permitted very few black nurses during World War II, Freeman joined and served in the Army Nurse Corps and was quickly promoted to First Lieutenant. Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII, she signed up in the Army Nursing Corps as a second lieutenant. She was sent to Camp Livingston, Louisiana, where she first encountered segregation. There, with other black nurses and doctors, she was forced to live in separate areas and work in “blacks’ only” wards. Despite these obstacles she was the first nurse at the camp to earn the rank of first lieutenant. Nursing was one of few professions open to black women during the war. The government offered free training and created the Nurse Cadet Corp. Nurses were desperately needed.

She caused quite a stir at Camp Livingston when she was the first Army nurse on the post to be promoted to first lieutenant. By early 1943 there were 100 black nurses on duty at Fort Huachuca.” Barbara Tomblin, G.I. Nightingales 

“In July 1942, the first group of black nurses arrived at Fort Huachuca, a remote post in the southern Arizona mountains. Lieutenant M. Aiken was already on duty at the new hospital when Lieutenant Susan Freeman and nine nurses reported for duty at Station Hospital No. 1. “That made eleven of us—and the hospital had 700 patients! But we plunged right in and worked like beavers,” Freeman recalled. “The situation is well in hand…. These are… good nurses, well-trained, and some of them have had excellent experience in hospitals of large bed capacity, and with modern facilities.” Once at Fort Huachuca, she and eleven other nurses, finding themselves working in conditions that lacked organizational structure, created wards for 700 – 1000 patients.

In 1942, Freeman was assigned to an American Army hospital in Liberia, where her work earned a unit commendation from the commanding general and a citation as a Knight Official of the Order of African Redemption from the Liberian Government. As Nurse Chief of thirty nurses at the 25th Station Hospital at Roberts Field, Liberia, she was the first Black nurse to command an overseas unit in the Army Nurse Corps.

In 1944, she served at the 25th Station Hospital, Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa, where she worked and commanded the first overseas Black nurses unit. She sailed there on the USS James Parker, where she successfully assisted with an emergency appendectomy despite treacherous weather conditions. In Liberia, Freeman and the nurses under her command went into the countryside to care for military personnel who needed their assistance. Upon return to Camp Livingston, she was promoted to Captain.

Captain Freeman was highly awarded as she received many accolades, including a humanitarian citation known as the Ribbon of the Knight Official of the Order of African Redemption from the Liberian government after her tour of duty. In 1945, she received the Mary Mahoney Award from the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, recognizing her service with the American Red Cross during the Ohio flood disaster and being the first black nurse to command an overseas unit.

After the war she returned to Stratford.  She worked as a nurse until retirement and volunteered with church and community activities, helping establish Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Incorporated. Her dedication and courageous efforts to the field of nursing are fine examples of her bravery, leadership, and civic duty.

She left the Army in 1945, the first black nurse ever to become a captain and commander of the first overseas unit of black nurses. Returning home to Stratford, she was founding member of Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority, and a member of the board of the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre. She died in the VA Hospital in 1979.

THETA CHAPTER _ Chi Eta Phi Sorority, IncorporatedChi Eta Phi is a professional association for registered professional nurses and student nurses–both male and female–representing many cultures and diverse ethnic backgrounds. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it has over 8,000 members, with more than 90 graduate chapters (for nurses who are already RNs) and 50 undergraduate (student) chapters located across the United States and in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Stratford Veterans Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of the town’s men and women who have served their country through the Armed Forces. Part of the way that story is told is through a series of displays in the museum, including a “core” exhibit that takes visitors from the Revolutionary War through today’s conflicts.

The Museum, which was founded in 2020, is in the process of collecting information on our town’s veterans: any men or women who served in the Armed Forces, were honorably discharged, and are (or were) residents of Stratford. They interview our town’s veterans (and their relatives) to get their stories. If you would like to schedule an interview, please email svm5952@gmail.com.

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