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Nurse faced hurdles for military acceptance

  • Published
Retired Army Maj. Nancy C. Leftenant-Colon, the first black nurse in the Reserve or active-duty Army nurse corps, didn't expect it to be easy.

As a Reservist, she knew upon joining the U.S. Army in 1945 that there would be hurdles, but her strength in the face of adversity created avenues for generations to follow, in both the Army and the Air Force.

It wasn't enough that she became the first Black member of the Regular Army Nurse Corps. She also served in the Air Force as a flight nurse and continued to make history as the only woman to hold the presidency of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., from 1989-1991.

The East Norwich, N.Y. native remembers her efforts to success.

As a registered nurse in the mid-1940s, Leftenant-Colon had become well aware of the austere circumstances Black women faced in pursuit of their professional training. Still, she graduated from the Lincoln School for Nurses in the Bronx, where a fair number of minority students attended. There, she saw a photo that caught her attention and spurred her consideration of the Army.

"I saw a picture of an Army nurse with her cape," she said. "She looked so good --straight and I tall. I wanted to do my part."

Leftenant-Colon said she recalled many of her colleagues' exhaust in battling the rigors of fitting into the military during such a turbulent time for civil rights. However, she endured, and with her impressive record applied for regular status as a nurse in 1948. Military officials soon approved her becoming the first Black nurse in the Regular Army Nurse Corps.

Following the Air Force's emergence from the Army Air Corps, Leftenant-Colon recalled, as a traveling Air Force nurse, the hardship of having to drive hundreds of miles out of the way in the South to stay with friends because Blacks were denied rooms at most motels.

Still, she describes her military experiences favorably, noting the quality of one's work, and not the color of one's skin should be paramount. In her career, she considered herself a nurse first, above any racial classification.

Leftenant-Colon retired and returned to New York in 1965. In Las Vegas during the August 2009 Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., convention, she participated in the concurrent promotion ceremony for Brig. Gen. Stayce Harris, the first black female to command an operational flying wing in the Air Force.