Born this day in 1877: Frances Elliott Davis (1877–1965), the first officially recognized African American nurse in the American Red Cross
Davis was born Frances Elliott in North Carolina. Her mother, Emma Elliot, was the white daughter of a plantation owner, and her father, Darryl Elliott, was a sharecropper of mixed African American and Cherokee descent. (He had the name Elliott from his mother, who adopted the name as a slave of the Elliott plantation.) Davis’s father left her life early, in preservation of his own, and her mother died when she was 5 years old. Despite her difficulties, Davis, with the quiet determination and perseverance that would come to characterize her career, managed to get herself a basic education.
She completed a teacher training course at Knoxville College in 1907. She taught school for a while, but really wanted to be a nurse. In 1913 she graduated from the Freedmen’s Hospital Training School for Nurses in Washington, D.C., and began working in the area as a private nurse. She applied to the American Red Cross (ARC) and she took the Town and Country Nursing Service course, a program sponsored by the ARC at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was the first African American nurse enrolled in the program. The course, however, did not guarantee official acceptance into the ARC.
Davis worked at the Henry Street Settlement House and for the ARC Town and Country Nursing Service in Jackson, Tennessee. During World War I, the ARC supplied nurses to the Army Nurse Corps. Town and Country Services nurses were automatically enrolled in the Red Cross—all white nurses, that is. After prodding the ARC, Davis received her Red Cross pin, becoming the Red Cross’s first officially recognized African American nurse. (The back of her nurse's pin was labeled with an "A" to indicate that she was an African American—a practice that persisted until 1949.) Even so, she was denied acceptance into the Army Nurse Corps, which did not accept African American nurses until after the war.
Much of the latter part of her career Davis devoted to nurse training, encouraging African American women to take up nursing; working for the Detroit Visiting Nurse Association; working for the Detroit Health Department; and working at the Ford Motor Plant commissary.
Davis died shortly before she was to be honored by the Red Cross at its annual convention in 1965.