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Leonard Medical School and the War

Jessica A. Bandel

In our posts on Thomas J. Bullock and Henry Johnson, we discussed the unique challenges military training and service posed to black North Carolinians in a racialized south. African American soldiers were often relegated to labor roles and served in racially segregated units that were typically officered by white men. One beacon of hope during this time, however, was the establishment of an officer candidate school for black men at Fort Des Moines, Iowa.

The selection process for the school was extremely competitive, with the Army selecting only 1,249 candidates nationwide. Just a little over half of that number earned their commissions. In North Carolina specifically, only 49 of the 21,609 black men who served during the war were selected for the training. Of these, 27 received commissions.

But there was one other way black men could earn commissions during World War I, and that was through medical training. Just 104 black physicians graduated from Medical Officers Training Camp (MOTC). Many of these men were recent medical school graduates of schools such as Mehary Medical College in Nashville, the medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Leonard Medical School at Shaw University in Raleigh.

In 36 years of operation, from 1882 to 1918, Leonard Medical School produced nearly four hundred African American physicians. Thirteen of the 104 black physicians commissioned for service in the army during the war had attended and graduated from Leonard.

Perhaps the most notable of Leonard’s alumni who served in the First World War was Urbane Francis Bass. Bass was a Richmond native who graduated from Leonard in 1906. In the years between graduation and the war, he operated a pharmacy and medical practice in Fredericksburg, VA. As war loomed on the horizon, Dr. Bass wrote the Secretary of War to offer his services, telling a friend that he was willing to give up his life in order to save others. “He was committed to the end,” his friend recalled.

Upon completion of the MOTC, Bass was commissioned a first lieutenant and assigned to 93rd Division, an all-black infantry division serving under French command. During the course of heavy fighting on October 17, 1918, Lieutenant Bass was treating wounded soldiers at a forward aid station. A shell hit very near the station’s vicinity, sending shrapnel through the tent. Both of Lieutenant Bass’s legs were severed. He died before he could be evacuated, leaving a wife and four children behind. For administering “first aid in the open and under prolonged and intense shell fire, until he was severely wounded,” Lieutenant Bass was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross.

Leonard Medical School encountered hard times during the war as well. Advancements in science had moved medical study from the classroom to laboratories, an exorbitantly expensive transition. The knockout blow came in 1910 when a report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called for more rigorous training standards and recommended the shuttering of all but two black medical schools—Meharry and Howard. Leonard continued to hemorrhage money until officials, determining they could save Shaw only if they let Leonard go, closed the medical school for good.

Interested in learning more about African American physicians in World War I, including the other twelve Leonard Medical School graduates who served in uniform? I highly recommend the groundbreaking study of W. Douglas Fisher and Joann H. Buckley called African American Doctors of World War I: The Lives of 104 Volunteers. More information about Leonard can be found on NCPedia.