January 31, 1942
This controversy was months in the making. Throughout 1941, Red Cross blood donation centers in cities across the country were collecting blood donations to send to armed service personnel. Blood from black donors, however, was sent to local hospitals rather than proceeding to the national program for American military. The Red Cross develop its blood policy in consultation with the Army and Navy, both of which were racially segregated during World War II. In an internal memo, James Magee, surgeon general of the Army, explained why he supported the Red Cross blood ban: “For reasons not biologically convincing but which are commonly recognized as psychologically important in America, it is not deemed advisable to collect and mix caucasian and negro blood indiscriminately.”63 G. Canby Robinson, the Red Cross blood program director issued a confidential statement in November 1941 that formalized these racial policies. “In obtaining blood plasma for use in the armed forces the American Red Cross is acting pursuant to the requests and instructions of the Army and the Navy and up to this time the Red Cross has been asked to supply only plasma from white donors...because about ninety-five percent of those serving in the armed forces are white men, who it is understood prefer plasma from white donors.”64 This policy meant that black donors were regularly turned away at Red Cross blood centers or directed to segregated facilities.
As historian Thomas Guglielmo describes in “‘Red Cross, Double Cross’: Race and America’s World-War II Era Blood Donor Service,” the African-American press rallied against these racist and undemocratic blood policies. When an African-American Social Security Board employee was told in July 1941 that she would have to donate at a blood center for “colored volunteers,” the Baltimore Afro-American blasted the city's “jim crow Red Cross unit.” The blood donor program and the controversy over the Red Cross’ race policies expanded after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The front page of the Cleveland Call and Post on December 27, 1941, featured a headline “Red Cross Bans Negro Blood..!” (click to view PDF). A month later, the Pittsburgh Courier carried a story from labor and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, who criticized the policy in no uncertain terms. “The refusal of the Red Cross to accept the blood of Negroes is an insult to the race,” Randolph wrote. “Since it is certain to shake the morale of the Negro people, it borders upon treason to the cause of national unity.”
A September 26, 1942, article in the Chicago Defender profiled Dr. Charles Drew to emphasize the hypocrisy of the Red Cross blood ban (click to view PDF). Drew pioneered new methods to process and store blood plasma and helped develop the Red Cross’ blood bank system for U.S. military personnel. “Dr. Charles R. Drew, head of Howard University’s department of surgery, is one of the world’s greatest authorities on the collection and preservation of blood plasma for emergency transfusions,” the Defender told readers, “Yet his own blood if taken by the Red Cross today would be segregated and not used by the U.S. Army if the life of a white solider depended on an immediate transfusion.” This is peak black press. The Defender and other African-American newspapers campaigned against these discriminatory policies, while also using the using the Red Cross policy to call attention to the expertise and contributions of Dr. Charles Drew and the patriotism of black Americans who wanted to donate blood.
To read more on this topic, see Thomas Guglielmo’s "‘Red Cross, Double Cross’: Race and America‘s World-War II Era Blood Donor Service,” Spencie Love, One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew; Susan Lederer, Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in 20th Century America; and Sarah Chinn, Technology and the Logic of American Racism: A Cultural History of the Body as Evidence.