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New 'Do For Self' Exhibit chronicles the Black Cross Nurses in Milwaukee

The inaugural Milwaukee chapter of the Black Cross Nurses, pictured in their official uniforms 1921.
Wisconsin Black Historical Society
Wisconsin Black Historical Society
The inaugural Milwaukee chapter of the Black Cross Nurses, pictured in their official uniforms 1921.

Editor's Note: This story originally aired on November 14, 2023

Over 100 years ago, amidst an international pandemic and rising rates of tuberculosis and smallpox, Hattie Fountain was looking for ways to provide healthcare to Milwaukee's Black residents, who were not receiving the small level of care as white residents.

A follower of Marcus Garvey and a member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, Fountain was returning from Chicago in 1921 where she had learned of the Black Cross Nurses — an international network of Black nurses who met the needs of Black residents in their area that were largely ignored by public health institutions. That year, Fountain founded a Milwaukee chapter of the Black Cross Nurses, and kept a diary of the Nurses' day-to-day activity.

That diary now serves as the foundation for a new exhibit at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society: “Do For Self: The story of Milwaukee’s Black Cross Nurses." The exhibit that chronicles the foundation of the Black Cross Nurses in Milwaukee.

The Black Cross Nurses were an offset of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) established by Marcus Garvey in the early 1920's. Starting in Garvey's home country of Jamaica, the long-term goals of the UNIA centered on political and economic autonomy for the black diaspora and encouraged self-reliant black nationalism. This is where the exhibit's "Do For Self" title comes from.

Clayborn Benson, historian and executive director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, said that the Black Cross Nurses were a realization of Marcus Garvey's vision for Black self-reliance, applied it to public health.

"They saw it as being part of the Marcus Garvey movement...and helping to solve the problems of our people.," Benson said. "When others did not want to, or were reluctant to, treat our people."

When the association was established, public health institutions like the American Red Cross were in place to aid in medical emergencies like tuberculosis, measles, and smallpox, but Black people did not receive the same level of care as white people from these types of establishment institutions. The first chapter of Black Cross Nurses was established in 1921, and many international chapters followed soon after. Milwaukee's chapter was founded in 1921 and operated heavily until around the 1950s when the Red Scare was in full swing.

Benson said the Black Cross Nurses faded away due to fears of becoming political prisoners for supposed communist activity, as Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy fueled fear of secret communist agents.

"It's the McCarthy era that brings the fear [to] people and they stopped attending meetings, " he said. "They did not want to go to jail."

Hattie Fountain's diary of day-to-day life in the UNIA and Black Cross Nurses during the 1920s is a rare document, said Jamila Benson, program director at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. Benson said that despite the Black Cross Nurses having chapters all over North and Central America, there is not much documentation of their activities.

"It's really exciting, there are historians who are going to find out this is written and want to know more about it," Benson said. "To talk about an individual nurse and her day-to-day activity, is really rare."

Though the Black Cross Nurses have not operated officially since the early 1950s, their commitment to improving Black health outcomes lives on today within people like Vanessa Johnson. Johnson is a reproductive health lactation nurse, birth doula and yoga instructor focused on prenatal and postpartum health. Johnson visited the exhibit on its opening night, and was moved to tears at how her day-to-day work and goals aligned with nurses working in Milwaukee over 100 years ago.

"Across the health sector, the disparities are through the roof, and it's important to know the history, to know all of the pioneers who came before us so that we can continue to do this work," Johnson said. "There's a quote that says, 'We are our ancestors wildest dreams.' And so we can't give up. We have to keep going."


Sam is a WUWM production assistant for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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