World War I Nurse Frances Reed Elliott Davis

Author: 
Jessica A. Bandel

World War I nurse Frances Elliott grew up knowing very little about her deep roots in Cleveland County, North Carolina. Her great great grandfather, Martin Elliott, was one of the county’s earliest settlers and a Revolutionary War veteran. Her grandfather—Martin’s grandson Edward Donoho Elliott—was a well-respected farmer and Methodist minister in the community who died before she was born. War veterans, church organizers, and community pillars proliferated in her family tree. Such a storied history, and yet, she knew so little of it.

Frances likewise knew little of her mother, Emma P. Elliott, who succumbed to the effects of tuberculosis when she was just five years old. Though there were many extended family members who could have taken in the orphan, one key factor intervened and drastically altered the course of the young girl’s life forever. Frances, you see, was black. The Elliotts were not.

Frances Reed Elliott Davis was born on April 28, 1883, fifteen miles northwest of Shelby, North Carolina, to a white woman, Emma, and Darryl, a half-Cherokee, half-black sharecropper. Darryl’s mother was a former slave of the Elliott family, and it is likely that Emma and Darryl grew up together on the family estate located on Hinton’s Creek just west of present-day Polkville.

It’s unclear when Emma and Darryl’s relationship began, but by 1882, their “tragic love affair,” as a close friend of Emma’s called it, threatened to become a very public matter when Emma became pregnant. State law prevented the two from marrying or even cohabitating, so any thought of settling down as a family must have evaporated as quickly as it materialized. Unspoken social codes were harsher, however, forcing Darryl to flee the state under threat of being lynched.

Emma too left North Carolina, eventually settling in Tennessee, but not before paying a visit to the Cleveland County courthouse where she made out a will bequeathing her forty-nine-acre share of the family estate to her daughter. If anything should happen to her, Emma thought, at least Frances would have that. Emma paid one last visit to her brother-in-law, Confederate veteran L. E. Powers, at Christmas in 1887. It was most likely the last time she was home. Within a few months, Emma would be dead, throwing the fate of her daughter to the wind.

By the time she was seventeen, Frances had been bounced around to five different foster homes and had experienced both the best and the worst of people. Her five-year stay with the Dorsetts, an African American family who lived outside of Greensboro, instilled in her the characteristics that carried her through tougher times—perseverance, self-confidence, initiative, and hard work. When Frances voiced at an early age her desire to be a nurse, her foster mother Lucinda Dorsett didn’t bat an eye. “[B]e sure to get an education,” she told Frances. “Then you can be a nurse.”

In an effort to help the girl pursue her dream, the Dorsetts made arrangements for Frances to live with a minister and his wife in Raleigh so that she could attend better schools. Her new foster family, the Withrows, didn’t place such a high value on her education, however, withdrawing Frances from school after only a few months so that she could stay at home and be a nanny to their infant.

Worsening matters, her new foster father, Reverend Chauncey I. Withrow, routinely used the money generated from the renting out of Frances’s land tract in Cleveland County—money that was intended to be used to care for Frances—for his own personal needs and desires. When Frances found a job so that she might provide for herself, the good reverend took that money as well.

The injustices became too much for Frances’s new employers, the Reeds, to swallow. The Reeds, a white family, really took to Frances and even tried to foster the girl so that she might return to school, but Reverend Withrow wouldn’t allow it. When Frances reported to work one day covered in bruises and saying she had to quit, Mrs. Reed had had enough of the reverend’s mistreatment. Very quickly she and Mr. Reed hatched a plan to get Frances out of the Withrow household.

That same day the Reeds handed Frances six weeks of wages, a suitcase full of new clothes and shoes, and a train ticket to Knoxville where it was arranged for her to attend the boarding school at Knoxville College. Over the course of the eight years in which she remained at the school, her life could at times be lonely, but never did a Christmas or birthday pass without a parcel of gifts from the Reeds. The Reeds’ generosity, in fact, did not stop there. The couple bankrolled Frances’s education and provided her with all the necessities she needed.

Upon graduation, Frances found herself at a crossroads. She still desperately wanted to be a nurse but her fiancé Albert and the Reeds all felt strongly she should pursue teaching. When a bout of Scarlet Fever struck the Reed household, Frances returned home to care for the Reeds’s two young daughters. The experience strengthened the now twenty-six-year-old’s resolve to follow her dream. She broke her engagement with Albert, took a temporary teaching job in Henderson, North Carolina, and saved all her money so that she could put herself through nurses’ training.

Following three years of intensive coursework and training at the Freedmen’s School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., Frances graduated and moved on to study for and ultimately pass the District of Columbia Board of Examination. Stints in private nursing and as a supervisor in Baltimore followed, but Frances wanted to do more. In an effort to put her skills to use where they were most desperately needed, she began looking towards the progressive work of the Red Cross. There was just one minor snag—the Red Cross wasn’t accepting black nurses. Frances, of course, remained undeterred.

Given her high academic standing, Red Cross officials couldn’t find a legitimate reason to turn her down. In the summer of 1916, the organization accepted her into the rural nursing program and sent her to Columbia University for advanced training. One year later, in July 1917, Frances reported to Jackson, Tennessee, for her first Red Cross assignment. Her Red Cross pin, numbered 1-A—making Frances the first officially registered African American nurse in the Red Cross—arrived shortly thereafter. (The “A” designation, identifying a nurse as black, began with Frances’s enrollment and remained in use until 1949.)

Despite their willingness to enroll black nurses, Red Cross and government officials remained extremely hesitant to deploy them in support of the war effort. Frances, motivated by a strong desire to serve her country in its time of need, appealed to the Red Cross for assignment to the Army Nurse Corps, following the formal process of admission to the Corps at that time. The Red Cross balked, replying that, because of segregation laws then on the books, the Army couldn’t accommodate women of color. Despite the development, black nurses, led by Adah Thoms, continued to pressure the government and the Red Cross.

In May 1918, at the height of war-time mobilization efforts, Frances was reassigned to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she was to provide medical care for the families of servicemen stationed at the nearby cantonments at Chickamauga Park and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Reports of an effort to mobilize black nurses for service at military camps broke soon after. Frances, delighted by the news, wrote to the organizer for her alma mater, offering to volunteer at once: “I am at my country’s service, as you know. I am serving under the Red Cross Public Health Bureau now, but will volunteer, at any time you wish, to go with the Freedmen’s unit.”

Again, the nurses were let down when the plans were slow to materialize. Frustratingly, the Red Cross and the War Department engaged in a game of bureaucratic football, passing the blame to each other in turn in an attempt to avoid providing a real solution. In the meantime, Frances and her colleagues—all well-trained, highly educated, proven nurses willing to go at once to the warzone—were left on the sidelines. By the time the Red Cross moved to assign black nurses in a wartime capacity, the war was very quickly drawing to a close.

Frances returned to her station in Jackson, but it wasn’t long before a more desperate call for volunteers went out. In September 1918, a virulent strain of the H1N1 influenza virus spread rapidly through the citizenry of the United States. Soldiers and civilians alike could not escape its grasp. Millions fell ill, causing a public health crisis for which the nation was poorly prepared. Armistice Day, signifying the war’s end, came and went, but the plague raged on. For American nurses, a new war had begun.

When the flu reached Jackson, Frances sought out additional ways to serve her community. In a time when only well-to-do Americans knew how to drive, the determined nurse made arrangements to learn the new skill so that she could make home visits to those down with the flu. After only an hour of instruction, she had it down pat, prompting her driving instructor, the sixteen-year-old son of a local blacksmith, to proclaim in bewilderment, “Miss Elliott will drive that car to hell and back.” And she did, stopping at home after home after home of families, both white and black, stricken with the deadly virus.

Over the fall and winter of 1918-1919, she watched, helplessly, as children and men and women in the prime of their lives succumbed to the disease. Even Frances could not escape its clutches, being laid low by a severe case just as the outbreak waned. Though she survived, the virus left her with permanent heart damage. When the epidemic finally relented, an estimated 650,000 Americans had perished, nearly six times as many as claimed by the war itself.

Frances took a few different jobs in the early 1920s, but eventually landed on the staff of the Detroit Public Health Department in 1927, a job she secured through the help of the Red Cross. For the first time in her life, she put down roots and stayed in one place. The love of education instilled in her by the Dorsetts so many years before compelled her to return to Columbia University in her forties, and unlike her first fiancé, her husband William Davis could not have been more supportive. She redoubled her efforts to help the poorest and most needy of Detroit, moving to the hardscrabble suburb of Inkster to better serve the impoverished there. Her good work in that community cannot be overstated.

In the 1940s, Frances undertook a new project, establishing a much-needed childcare facility at the Carver School. She lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt for support, and to her amazement, the President’s wife became personally involved in the project, assisting in the planning and the funding of the facilities. Once the school was up and running, the sixty-two-year-old returned to nursing, taking a job at a nearby hospital. It wasn’t until she reached her sixty-ninth year that Frances finally retired.

Frances Reed Elliott Davis died on May 2, 1965, just days before her long career and perseverance over race-related obstacles was to be formally recognized at a ceremony organized by the American Red Cross.

Interested in learning more about Nurse Davis? I highly recommend Jean Pitrone’s 1969 biography of Davis entitled Trailblazer: Negro Nurse in the American Red Cross. You can read the book for free online through the Internet Archive by simply registering and “borrowing” the title electronically. It’s super easy, and the book is a fantastic read!