|Octavia Bridgewater is standing on the far right in this 1926 photo, probably taken in Colorado Gulch near Helena.|
Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, PAc 2002-36 11
Monday, February 25, 2013
The Army Nurse Corps formed in 1901, and African American nurses served throughout all wars. However, they served as contract nurses and not in the military. At the end of World War I, when the Spanish flu epidemic caused a severe shortage of nurses, the Army Nurse Corps accepted eighteen African American women after Armistice to care for German prisoners of war and African American soldiers stateside. In 1941, the Army Nurse Corps began accepting a few African American nurses. In 1942, there were 8,000 black nurses in the United States. The Army’s strict quota, however, allowed only 160 to enlist. One of the first black nurses accepted for active duty was Octavia Bridgewater of Helena. She served from January 11, 1943, until November 29, 1945.
Octavia received her nurses training at the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in the Bronx in the late 1920s. At that time, the Lincoln School and the Harlem School of Nursing were the only two schools exclusively for African Americans. Even so, both were under white administration. When Octavia returned to Montana after graduation in 1930, her only option was private duty nursing. After her enlistment in the Army, Octavia and her colleagues realized that if the military quota situation was not lifted, black nurses could never be integrated into the mainstream medical community after the war. Nationally through the black press, these women mobilized for their cause. Slowly, African American nurses pierced the barriers within the military system. The Army and Navy lifted the boycott in 1945. Octavia returned to civilian life to give many years of service to the Helena community as a maternity nurse at St. Peters Hospital. She was also very involved in Montana’s vibrant black community. Octavia was especially proud to have been part of the national movement that helped pave the way for her own civilian nursing career and for the careers of many other black nurses.