The Black Cross Nurses (BCN) is an auxiliary group intended for female members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The BCN was modeled on the nurses of the Red Cross. Its first chapter was launched in Philadelphia in May 1920. Under the leadership of Henrietta Vinton Davis, the BCN quickly became one of the UNIA’s most popular and iconic auxiliary groups. Offering a safe and inviting place for the Black community, UNIA halls became important cultural hubs in many cities and towns across Canada, where BCN divisions were also established. Although they were not professionally trained nurses, members of the BCN were expected to provide care and advice on matters of health and hygiene.
Origins and Purpose of the UNIA
The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), a Black nationalist organization, was founded in 1914 by Marcus Garvey in Kingston, Jamaica. In 1916, Garvey moved to Harlem, in New York City, and two years later established the UNIA-ACL’s new headquarters. He chose Harlem because it was the centre of the burgeoning Black cultural and political movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. The UNIA was considered the benevolent, fraternal side of the organization, whose aim was to unify persons of African descent from around the world and to raise their consciousness about matters of racial inequality.
The ACL was the faction responsible for completing the UNIA’s ultimate goal of going “Back to Africa” to establish an all-Black nation that would grant Black peoples with the economic, political and social equality they lacked in White-dominated societies. Garvey’s uplifting message of an “Africa for the Africans” garnered the support of millions of followers, mainly working-class men and women known as Garveyites. The organization became one of the largest civil rights movements of the 20th century.
Garvey encouraged his followers to start divisions of the UNIA in their hometowns, and to establish a base of operations (whether rented or purchased) to be called Liberty or UNIA Hall. Modeled on Liberty Hall in Harlem, local divisions held regular Sunday meetings at the hall, and other events and activities for the community. Offering a safe and inviting place for the Black community, UNIA Halls became important cultural hubs in many cities and towns across Canada. The first were established in Montreal and Toronto in 1919.
The UNIA launched numerous auxiliary groups under its umbrella to stimulate participation and to educate its members on the philosophies of the organization. The auxiliary groups were designed to appeal to different age groups and interests. They also afforded its members with leadership opportunities within the Association, which bolstered their sense of purpose and self-worth. The Universal African Legion (UAL), for example, was a militaristic auxiliary for men that stressed the values of discipline and protection. UNIA choirs and bands offered an outlet for Black artistic talent as well as entertainment for the local community. The Juvenile Branch aimed to train the next generation of leaders, and the Black Cross Nurses gave women the occasion to showcase their skills as nurturers and educators.
UNIA in Canada
At its peak, the UNIA appealed to about a quarter of the Black Canadian population, mostly immigrants from the Caribbean and some from the United States. The first Canadian UNIA divisions opened in Montreal and Toronto in 1919. The organization spread quickly across the country, with a total of 32 divisions sprouting up in both urban and rural communities. Canadian Garveyites participated in their local divisions by planning and hosting events, meetings and excursions as a means of building stronger communities. Canadians were also active in the UNIA’s international affairs and projects. For example, Canadian members often sent delegates to the UNIA’s annual international convention. They also regularly contributed news on their local divisions to The Negro World, the UNIA’s official newspaper, which would be read by Garveyites around the world. Many Canadian Garveyites showed their commitment to the UNIA by joining its auxiliary groups, including the Black Cross Nurses.
Black Cross Nurses in Canada
UNIA members in Canada joined their local BCN auxiliaries with enthusiasm. Although they were not professionally trained nurses, members of the BCN were expected to provide care and advice on matters of health and hygiene. In larger cities, such as Toronto, the BCN took St. John Ambulance courses to become better educated in these areas, and they would share information on topics such as first aid and public safety in pamphlets and newsletters. The BCN also offered comfort to the sick and suffering by sending flowers and paying them visits at home or in hospital. In 1921, the UNIA division in Edmonton reported that its BCN answered 250 calls to sick members in the community in addition to “six maternity cases.” In Sydney, Nova Scotia, the BCN helped new mothers to care for their children and tidy their homes. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935–36), Toronto’s BCN made bandages to send to the Ethiopian armed forces, demonstrating that their desire to care for the sick and injured stretched beyond the borders of their local communities.
This Secret Life of Canada episode looks into the surprisingly young history of Black nurses in Canada and why many of these women had to travel to the U.S. for their education. It also takes a look at the story of the Black Cross Nurses and how Black nurses went from shutouts to leaders in a matter of decades.
Note: The Secret Life of Canada is hosted and written by Falen Johnson and Leah Simone Bowen and is a CBC original podcast independent of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
The BCN in Canada also organized functions and fundraisers for the UNIA and its members as a means of encouraging unity and friendship. Across Canada, in cities and towns such as Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Glace Bay and Junkins, the BCN threw garden parties, planned bazaars and bake sales and hosted dinners for the enjoyment of the local Black community. These events also provided opportunities for UNIA members to celebrate their shared cultural heritage and to indulge in traditional food and music from the Caribbean and the southern United States.
In the early 20th century, nursing was considered one of the most respectable careers available to educated, middle-class women. Nursing represented the highest ideals of womanhood at the time, including purity, morality, nurturing and maternal care. Even though the women of the BCN were not professional nurses, the auxiliary group allowed them to assume a similar role and thereby embody these esteemed womanly virtues. The BCN uniform of a white gown and cap, adorned with a black cross, was meant to serve as a public demonstration of these wholesome womanly qualities.