In the Early 1940s, the Red Cross Banned Black Blood Donors - Atlas Obscura
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In the Early 1940s, the Red Cross Banned Black Blood Donors

Sometimes, the politics of who can give blood has less to do with medical limitations than cultural ones.

Members of World War II's 33nd Fighter Group attend a briefing in Ramitelli, Italy.

Members of World War II’s 33nd Fighter Group attend a briefing in Ramitelli, Italy. (Photo: Toni Frissell/Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ppmsca-13245)

Over the past few days, as the country reels in the wake of the horrific shooting in Orlando, Floridians have turned out in droves to offer prayers, support, and something slightly more tangible: blood.

City blocks have filled up with potential donors, standing in line for hours awaiting the chance to help. Volunteers are bringing food and cold water to make the wait more manageable. Some blood banks have been so flooded with support, they’ve been forced to turn people away, urging them to return in the coming days.

But a particular legal footnote has kept certain faces out of the lines, and certain names off of the signup sheets. Due to FDA guidelines, many queer men—specifically, men who have had sex with another man sometime in the past year—are not allowed to donate blood.  Despite blowback from medical experts, who called prior versions of the ban “antiquated” and “discriminatory,” it has remained in place, in one form or another, since it was first instated in 1983. On this particular week, the ban seems like an additional assault. “I want to be able to help my brothers and sisters that are out there, that are suffering right now,” one gay man, Garrett Jurss, told NBC Orlando. “But I can’t, and I feel helpless.”

But this isn’t the first time blood donation has mixed with discrimination. Right when the U.S. entered World War II—just as blood donation was becoming a way for people to express their patriotism, dedication, and pride—black Americans nationwide were banned from giving blood. A look back at this ban highlights how decisions regarding who gets to donate blood are driven as much by cultural questions as by medical ones.

In the early 1940s, large-scale blood donation was still a relatively new technology. Improvements in storage, ranging from special plastic bottles to new anticoagulents, had made blood banking and transportation a sudden possibility. Governments, anticipating unprecedented wartime injuries, jumped on its promise—as did civilians looking for a new way to help. Even before the U.S. joined World War II, Americans proudly sent blood overseas via the “Plasma for Britain” project, which was masterminded by Charles Drew, a black doctor from Washington, D.C.. A Life Magazine article from October 1940 shows a woman in a string of pearls smiling as she gives a pint.

After donating blood at a Red Cross center in Washington, D.C., a man waits for his free cup of coffee.

After donating blood at a Red Cross center in Washington, D.C., a man waits for his free cup of coffee. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-fsa-8d30150)

As the war ramped up, the Army asked the Red Cross to test and roll out a National Blood Donor Service, focused on collecting plasma for soon-to-be-deployed American soldiers. They opened dozens of donation centers across the country, and spread the word with radio ads and posters explaining, “He Needs Your Blood.” The public responded with gusto. The kind of group donations that might barely make the local news today were lighting up national headlines in 1941: “102 Blood Donors In Day,” for example, and “Aircraft Workers to Give Blood.”

But the social mores had not caught up with the science. In late 1941, the U.S. Army and Navy told the Red Cross that they would only accept blood from white donors. There was zero medical justification for this—as John Egerton writes in Speak Now Against the Day, “scientific studies had proved conclusively that no racial differences existed in the chemical makeup of blood.” Instead, Egerton explains, “the military, under heavy political pressure, yielded to the prevailing social bias.”

In the words of the Army surgeon general, “For reasons not biologically convincing but which are commonly recognized as psychologically important in America, it is not deemed advisable to collect and mix caucasian and [N]egro blood indiscriminately.”

Dr. Charles Drew (second from right) with students at Howard University.

Dr. Charles Drew (second from right) with students at Howard University. (Photo: National Library of Medicine/Public Domain)

Because of this, black Americans who showed up at donation centers to do their part were instead turned away. The resulting outcry was swift, pained, and furious. The American Medical Association spoke out against the ban, as did the Red Cross themselves—although they went along with it, in Egerton’s words, “for the sake of the war effort.” Drew, who had been promoted director of blood banks for the entire Red Cross, resigned his position in protest. Sylvie Tucker, the first person to publicly protest the ban, summed up the prevailing feelings in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt after she was refused from a donation center in Detroit, Michigan. “I was shocked and grieved,” she wrote. “[I] challenged… [the doctor] to accept my blood and place it in a container… and after due process make it available for some Negro mother’s son, who like his white American brothers-in-arms, must face shot and shell and death.”

After three months of uproar, the military changed their position slightly—instead of refusing black people’s blood outright, they would instead segregate it from the white supply. Meanwhile, they doubled down on the party line, suggesting that all those who disagreed with this policy were undermining the war effort. Letters from thousands of white constituents appeared on the desks of Congressmen, expressing concerns about multiracial transfusions and supporting the separation. Politicians described those against it as “crackpots, Communists, and parlor pinks.”

“In the absence of clear scientific evidence to support their decision, blood segregation appeared to work largely as a way to calm cultural fears of contagion,” writes historian Holly Tucker.

Post-donation at the D.C. Red Cross, a volunteer keeps his arm up. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-fsa-8d30127)

Post-donation at the D.C. Red Cross, a volunteer keeps his arm up. (Photo: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-fsa-8d30127

Once again, many fought back immediately. “Nearly all the major civil rights organizations of the day… made changing blood policy a top priority,” writes historian Thomas Guglielmo. Labor unions, religious organizations, and those aforementioned Communists held rallies condemning blood segregation. A group of diverse and precocious Harlem schoolchildren performed a science experiment to prove blood was the same between races. Many African-Americans boycotted donation altogether, while others refused to play by the rules: in his Chicago Defender column, Langston Hughes described how “passing” African-Americans would give blood without mentioning their race. “Thus, by now, white plasma and colored plasma must be hopelessly scrambled together,” he wrote. “It amuses me to wonder how the Red Cross will ever get it straightened out.”

Indeed, the Red Cross did not get it straightened out until 1950, when, after a decade of criticism, they finally stopped segregating blood. (Some states, like Louisiana, took even longer to come around.) “It has long been known that human blood is all alike, from whatever race it comes,” the New York Times explained as it announced the change.

As evidenced by blood segregation, it’s hard to get people to swap their deep-held beliefs for scientific truths. It’s a bit easier to imbue science with a little bit of poetry. Those waiting in line in Orlando are repurposing this biological truth for a new generation of healing. As Orlando’s Micah James told the Sentinel while waiting in line to donate, “We’re all made of the same stuff, flesh and bone and blood.”