Salaria Kea’s Spanish memoirs

December 4, 2011
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Salaria Kea working as a nurse in Spain.

Many motivations led Salaria Kea to volunteer as a nurse with the American Medical Bureau in Spain, from her concern over fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, to her Catholic beliefs, to her internationalist attitude to support freedom and democracy around the world. Over her lifetime, Kea repeatedly tried to publicize her experiences as the only African-American nurse, and one of few African-American women, to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. The holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives at the Tamiment Library at New York University, as well as other archives in England and the United States, show that she composed at least four memoirs between the time she returned from Spain in 1938 and her death in 1991. Kea also lectured across the United States to raise funds for the Spanish Republic during the 1930s and 1940s and participated in multiple Spanish Civil War documentary projects into the 1980s. The Negro Committee to Aid Spain, with the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, published a version of her early memoir, While Passing Through, as the 1938 pamphlet A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain (available on the ALBA website). However, Kea’s more extensive accounts of her time in Spain, and of the rest of her life, remain mostly unknown.

Part of the difficulty in studying Kea’s life—and what makes her story so intriguing—is that subtle details change from memoir to memoir. Over the last three years, I have travelled to archives in the United States and England tracking down information about Kea, and yet I am still piecing together her story. The process of mapping Kea’s life, from her childhood in the American south to the trip to Spain that remained one of her most important and memorable life experiences, to her adulthood in New York City and Akron, in many ways parallels the process of mapping Spanish Civil War history. As governments release more information about their involvement in the conflict, new stories are told, and we continue to deepen our understanding of this momentous conflict.

Some of the alterations and omissions in Kea’s accounts are more easily explicable than others. For instance, although she was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, on July 13, 1913, she occasionally cited Akron, Ohio, as her birthplace.

Kea also told at least two versions of her early childhood. As one journalist commented, “[i]t was a childhood she preferred to forget and even tried to change.” The account Kea most often gave was that her father, a gardener at a sanatorium, was killed by a patient when she was a baby. Forced to work to support the family, Kea’s mother moved her four children to Akron to live with family friends. In contrast, in a later interview Kea explained that her father was killed at sea during World War I, and her mother died soon after. Rather than emphasize the traumatic aspects of her younger years, Kea’s accounts of her childhood and adolescence more frequently focus upon the support and love of her brothers and family friends, who raised her and encouraged her to pursue a nursing degree. Kea had to move to Harlem to do so, because the institutions nearer by were segregated and refused to admit her. As a nursing student, Kea successfully lobbied Harlem Hospital’s management to desegregate the staff dining room and ensure better working conditions for the black nurses. She remained in New York after graduation, becoming head nurse of Sea View Hospital’s tuberculosis ward.

Kea’s passion for nursing and her ability to effect real social change led her to a life of activism. After Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, she and her fellow nurses raised money to send hospital supplies to Ethiopian troops. She was anxious to volunteer her skills as well, but Haile Selassie, the emperor, had stopped accepting foreign volunteers. Around the same time, she seems to have joined the Communist Party, although she almost never admitted to it in subsequent years. When asked by an interviewer about the International Brigades’ politics, she responded (perhaps playfully) that she was not a communist, nor did she even know of any communists in Spain, adding, “I thought [Communism] was for white people only, just like the mafia.”

Salaria Kea. Tamiment Library, NYU, ALBA PHOTO #13, Box 02, folder 09.

As for many former International Brigades volunteers, Kea’s possible ties to Communism and to the Spanish Republicans likely hurt her job prospects upon her return to the United States. An archived 1974 letter to another volunteer nurse, Fredericka Martin, exemplifies these fears. Kea worries, “Do you think I might be on Nixon’s Enemies list?”

Kea’s communist affiliations notwithstanding, she was keen to help out where she could. Unable to travel to Ethiopia, in 1936 she applied to the Red Cross to assist Midwest flood victims, but she was rejected because of her race. Around the same time, Kea’s colleague Arnold Donawa, the former dean of Howard University’s dental school, decided to volunteer with the Spanish Republicans and convinced her to join him. In pointed contrast to the Red Cross, the International Brigades and the American Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy were happy to have her help. She once commented, “It seemed so funny, me being turned down in a democratic country and then allowed to go to a fascist one.” Kea sailed for Port Bou on March 27, 1937

Two aspects of Kea’s memoirs that have proven particularly controversial, doubted or discounted by some historians and fellow volunteers but corroborated by others, are Kea’s claims that an American volunteer doctor called her a “nigger wench” while on the ship to Europe and refused to dine with her, and that once in Spain, she was captured by fascist soldiers and imprisoned for days or even weeks before International Brigades soldiers rescued her. Small details (the length of her imprisonment, for instance) change from memoir to memoir, and the documents’ truth is ultimately uncertain: International Brigades archives hold extensive correspondence between historians and former volunteers attempting to verify the truth of Kea’s account, as well as documentation that confirms her claims. While we may never know exactly what happened to Kea while she was in Spain, in the hopes of broadening our collective knowledge about American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War—and the integral roles played by African American and female volunteers—it seems fundamental to examine Kea’s many accounts. Whether the changing details were the result of forgetting or remembering, or else motivated by fear of reprisals, a desire to connect with her audience (Kea lectured extensively, after all), or something else entirely, her various memoirs are useful depictions of another side of the Spanish Civil War.

Kea adjusted easily to life in Spain and to communicating with Spanish and international volunteers, explaining to one interviewer, “In New York [it was] just like you were in a foreign country, if you came from Akron, because everybody had their own language.” Kea quickly noticed the parallels between American racism, European anti-Semitism, and Spanish fascism. In New York, she had worked with many Jewish doctors and nurses, some of them European immigrants who had come to the United States fleeing anti-Semitism. But in Spain, she first witnessed xenophobia based not on race, religion, or ethnicity. In While Passing Through she commented, “The [Spanish] peasants had been psychologically just as imprisoned, had accepted the belief that nothing could be done about their situation as had the Harlem nurses earlier accepted racial discrimination in their dining room. Like the Harlem nurses, too, the peasants were now learning that something could be done about it….There was nothing inviolable about the old prejudices…they could be changed and justice established.”

Working in Villa Paz, Kea was soon to have the opportunity to challenge these prejudices. An injured Irish International Brigades soldier, John Patrick O’Reilly, fell in love with her. Although she tried to keep their relationship platonic, he eventually won her over by writing her poems and involving her in lengthy discussions. In a draft of While Passing Through, she writes, “We discussed North America, Ireland, and all groups and races who were victims of fascism and other injustices and how we two could help to abolish the enemies of the human race.” When he proposed after a swimming excursion, she at first refused. He asked if she were going to “let the reactionaries take away the only thing a poor man deserved, and that thing is his right to marry the one he loved and believed loved him?” Kea recounts that she swooned and “in her bathing suit plopped to the ground, she did not know she had sat on a cactus plant until she reached her quarters and sat on the bed.” Once she healed, they celebrated their wedding at the palace. Afterwards, she was transferred to different units in Aragon, Lerida, and Barcelona, among other places, until she was injured in a bombing. She recuperated in France before returning to the United States in May 1938.

Back in the United States, Kea lectured across the country to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the Spanish cause. Kea also lobbied the government to allow O’Reilly to immigrate—an especially complicated process, since they were an interracial couple. O’Reilly finally moved to the United States in 1940, but was soon drafted for World War II. Kea served too, beginning in 1944 when African-American women were first recruited. The couple returned to New York after the war, and Kea went on to coordinate staff desegregation in several hospitals. They eventually retired to Akron in 1973, where Kea died on May 18, 1990.

Kea frequently referred to her time in Spain as some of the best days of her life. Once back in the United States—and especially in Akron—she and O’Reilly experienced extensive racism in the form of personal threats and property damage: according to various interviews, at certain points they were afraid to leave the house together. In this light, Kea’s discussions of her freedom from discrimination in Spain are especially poignant. Her alignment of different types of oppression, such as American racism, European anti-Semitism, and Spanish and Italian fascism, is an illuminating way to approach her reasons for getting involved in the Spanish Republican cause. However, there is also a risk of erasing important differences in emphasizing oppression’s universality, and not its specific manifestations. In forgetting or omitting Kea’s claimed experiences with racism amongst the American volunteers, we also run the risk of homogenizing the American experience of the Spanish Civil War.

Emily Robins Sharpe is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Penn State University. Her dissertation examines Jewish literature about the Spanish Civil War.

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3 Responses to “ Salaria Kea’s Spanish memoirs ”

  1. [...] difficult.  But you can start with this excellent article written by Emily Robins Sharpe, which offers a couple of photos. I wish someone would do a full [...]

  2. rick rice on June 4, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    What a great story – thanks so much! I wish we had a full bio too.

  3. Connie Tomaino on June 5, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Mrs. O’Reilly was my neighbor in The Bronx when I was growing up. She was my hero and encouraged me to go to college. She had such an influence on me. I think about her often but didn’t know what happened to her as she moved when I was away at college. I recently heard a story about nurses who served during the Spanish Civil War and did a google search. When I saw the photo my heart started racing. Little did I know she had accomplished what she did. As I young child I knew she was very special. Learning who she was makes me feel so honored to have had the chance to spend time with her.

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