The University Blood Initiative stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and is committed to bringing about a fairer, more equitable future. As such, we are spending this week highlighting the systemic racism, discrimination, and barriers to blood donation Black Americans have historically experienced and continue to face. Today, we’re starting at the beginning, with the origins of blood donation in the United States.
In 1941, spurred on by the demands of World War II, the Red Cross began its Blood Donor Program. With impassioned radio ads and national calls to action, millions of Americans donated blood to be shipped overseas for military aid. It was a tremendous effort that inarguably saved an extraordinary number of lives. But it also excluded an extraordinary number of people.
As extensively discussed in a number of articles and scholarly papers, the Red Cross, despite its national cry for help, would not accept blood from Black donors from its inception. Reportedly, this was a direct military order--despite scientific proof that there is no racial difference in blood, the US Army and Navy preferred to bow to discriminatory, overtly racist practices. This policy led Charles R. Drew to resign from his position as medical director of the Red Cross Blood Bank program, calling it “contrary to scientific fact” and “an insult to patriotic black Americans.” Still, the ban on blood donors of color held strong.
But in December 1941, a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when the nation’s need for blood and impassioned donation campaigns were at an all-time high, Sylvia Tucker attempted to donate blood at her local Red Cross center in Detroit, and was turned away. The reason, of course, was that she was African-American. Rightfully furious, she wrote a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, then the first lady. Her efforts, coupled with intense public outcry, persuaded the military and the Red Cross to change their policies. In January 1942, the Red Cross began accepting Black blood donors--on a segregated basis.
Full integration of the Red Cross’s national blood donation program wouldn’t come until the 1950s, after years of activism, and Arkansas and Louisiana maintained segregated policies until the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Blood donation centers today do not discriminate on the basis of race, but the damage has long since been done: the majority of blood donors are white, and Black donors give blood at disproportionately low rates (for a host of reasons we’ll be talking about later in the week).
The Red Cross, and America, does not much discuss this chapter of its history, and both its existence and its erasure speak volumes. As human beings, we may carry different blood types, but our blood is all fundamentally the same. Science has proven over and over again that race bears no impact on blood, and to treat it otherwise is both unscientific and overtly racist. The early history of blood donation in American is shameful, and what we must do now is demand a better one going forward.