Elinor Powell

Nurse, Wife, Mother

“I was not naive regarding segregation and discrimination but going into a completely segregated situation was constantly a shock to me.I think I stayed angry most of my army career, even though the whole experience was interesting, maddening, frustrating and even fun.” ~Elinor Powell originally quoted in G.I. Nightingales by Barbara Brooks Tomblin, 2003

Born in Massachussetts in 1921, military service was a tradition in Elinor Powell's Black American family. Her father had served in World War I and she had relatives who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Bravery also ran deep in her family. Her grandmother had freed herself from slavery by heading north along the Underground Railroad. 

Thus, it was not surprising that Elinor opted to become a an officer in the Army Nurse's Corps during World War II. What surprised her was the racism and discrimination that she faced, both in the Army and in the country outside the suburb where she grew up. Along with other Black nurses in the Corps, 2nd Lieutenant Powell was tasked with taking care of German POWs at Camp Florence in Arizona. Between 1942 and 1946, more than 371,600 German Prisoners-of-War (POWs) were housed across the country in some 600 camps. 

Lieutenant Powell and her fellow Black nurses resented being made to look after Nazis. After all, they had volunteered to look after wounded American soldiers, not the enemy. Being admitted to the Nurse Corps was an arduous task for Black women. Moved with patriotism and oposition to Hitler's racist regime, thousands tried to enlist and were rejected after Hitler invaded Poland. It was not until the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) protested these rejections, with assistance from the Black press and civil rights groups, that the first 56 nurses were admitted to the Corps in 1941. By 1944, when Elinor Powell joined the Corps, it had upped its quota for Black nurses to 300 in comparison to the 40,000 white women who served, and the majority of those African American nurses would serve at POW camps.

The Black nurses had first been given this assignment because the Army determined there had been "too much fraternization" between white nurses and POWs. Thus, Elinor's wartime and postwar story becomes an ironic tale. At Camp Florence, she met and fell in love with Wermacht Medic and POW cook Frederick Albert. Aided by her fellow nurses, Powell was able to carry on her romance for the duration of the war, keeping it a secret from the white officers and other POWs. When the war ended, Powell and Albert conceived their first son, Stephen, just before Albert was sent back to Germany on a boat in 1946. His birth enabled Albert to immigrate to the United States and the couple married in New York City on June 26, 1947. 

Service for Black nurses remained frustrating as the war entered its final year and the numbers of wounded soldiers grew exponentially. Despite unheeded applications from more than 9000 nurses, FDR proposed legislation for a nurses' draft to try to swell the ranks of white nurses by 18,000. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. famously said, "“It is absolutely unbelievable that in times like these, when the world is going forward, that there are leaders in our American life who are going backward. It is further unbelievable that these leaders have become so blindly and unreasonably un-American that they have forced our wounded men to face the tragedy of death rather than allow trained nurses to aid because these nurses’ skins happen to be of a different color.” Ultimately, the NACGN and the Black Press managed to convince First Lady Elinor Roosevelt to pressure the government to reassign Black nurses to Army hospitals. Segregation of the Nurse Corps ended in 1948 with Exeutive Order 9981, and the NACGN disbanded in 1951 when the American Nurses Association (ANA) began admitted Black nurses to its ranks.

After the war, life was not easy for the Alberts in the United States or in Germany as the moved with their sons, Stephen and Chris, from community to community, seeking a place where their family would be accepted, but they managed to sustain each other and raise their children in a loving family, filled with the sounds of jazz, music they both loved. Eventually they settled in the intentionally integrated community of Norwalk, Connecticut, where Frederick Albert leveraged his wartime cooking skills to get a job creating new products at Pepperidge Farm. 

The Alberts' son Chris grew up to play trumpet with Duke Ellington's Orchestra and shared the family's story with journalist Alexis Clark who published a book about their experience, Enemies in Love, in 2018.