Salaria Kea in the Archive

February 11, 2022

Salaria Kea in Spain. Summit County Historical Society, Akron, Ohio.

Salaria Kea, the only African American woman to serve in Spain, sailed from New York City with the second American Medical Unit on March 27, 1937, and returned to the United States in May 1938. To understand what her experience was like, we must rely on documents scattered through various archives. But archives are never neutral.

Although Salaria Kea’s own writings are sparse and were never published in conventional formats, her story is fundamental to understanding how the Spanish Civil War represented an important vehicle for anti-racist mobilization in the United States. The list of archival sources is short. There are some important visual materials in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives housed at New York University’s Tamiment Library, including well-known photographs of Kea with the American Unit, footage of Kea attending wounded soldiers at Villa Paz in Henri Cartier-Besson’s Victoire de la vie from 1937, and an interview in the 1984 documentary The Good Fight that also appears in Julia Newman’s documentary Into the Fire (2002). Yet the story that emerges from these is complicated by the few available written sources. In several different documents, for example, Kea’s fellow nurse Fredericka Martin (1905-1992) questions the veracity of Kea’s testimony. To bring out the silenced and forgotten Black experience in the U.S. and in Spain during the 1930s, it’s important to Kea’s testimony and Martin’s doubts in a broader historical context.

Born in Milledgeville, Georgia, on July 13, 1913, Salaria Kea moved to Ohio and then to New York City to attend the Harlem Hospital Training Program, where she flourished. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, groups of Harlem nurses and physicians gathered medical supplies and sent a 75-bed field hospital to the African nation in support of Emperor Haile Selassie’s troops. Later, when Mussolini sent aid to the military rebels in Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Black Americans saw the Spanish struggle as a continuation of Italian aggression in Africa. In Spain, Kea married the Irish International Brigadier Patrick O’Reilly. They later lived in New York City and ultimately settled in Akron, Ohio, where Kea died in 1990.

Several samples of Kea’s papers are in the Fredericka Martin archive at the Tamiment. Martin worked in Spain as chief nurse and administrator of the American Hospital division, overseeing the work of 54 nurses. Martin’s archive reflects the time she spent during the latter years of her life compiling notes, conducting research, and sending out questionnaires to former Medical Bureau staff in order to write a history of the non-military presence in Spain during the war. Her project was never finished but, fortunately, all her research and correspondence survive in the ALBA Collection in New York.

In her notes, Martin questions and edits Kea’s writings. In several instances she categorically rebukes the contents of Kea’s articles and manuscripts in marginal handwritten notes. For example, Kea published a short article titled “While Passing Through” in the spring 1987 issue of Health and Medicine: Journal of the Health and Medicine Policy Research Group. Written entirely in the first person, the piece presents much of the same information as the 1938 pamphlet “A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain,” but the first-person narration gives this piece a distinctly personal register that heightens its testimonial value. “I sailed from New York to Spain on the S.S. Paris with the second American Medical Unit,” Kea writes. “The doctor in charge of the group refused to sit at the same table with me in the dining room and demanded to see the Captain. The Captain moved me to his table where I remained throughout the voyage.” In the margin directly next to this paragraph the word “False” appears in large, penciled script. Directly opposite this first handwritten note is another, smaller version of the word “false,” this time next to a description of the conditions in the hospital set-up at Villa Paz near Madrid. Kea describes the quarters as overrun with cattle and explains how the peasants who had recently occupied the space were so accustomed to living in misery and squalor that “even with the king gone, they did not feel free to live in his beautiful palace.”

The editorializing intervention of the penciled-in “false” is firm and absolute. It is not a question mark, for example, that would indicate a point needing clarification. Yet while this gesture delegitimizes Kea’s voice as a reliable narrator, it fails to specify exactly what about Kea’s testimony is not true. Martin’s intervention also jars our concept of the archive as a repository of historically valid material. In a way, it forces the reader to take sides. Who is telling the truth, Kea or Martin? This dispute distracts from the point of Kea’s story, which is to share her experience with racism. Her account of personal humiliation and isolation on the ship, for example, clearly complicates what, for many white nurses, was most likely a triumphant, patriotic voyage to fight fascism in Europe.

Martin’s editorial accusations lead to a profound, negative impact on Kea’s credibility and authority as a witness. By denying Kea her voice and agency, the marginal notes relegate Kea’s narrative to a marginalized position within the archive. What remains in the archive is not Kea’s own account but rather Martin’s negation and refusal to accept her voice as true. This forces readers to first reestablish Kea’s authority as a witness before they can begin to think critically about the content of her account.

The pamphlet “A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain” was written in 1938 to garner financial support for the Republic as it fought to hold its ground against Franco’s quickly advancing forces. Issued by the Negro Committee to Aid Spain, the booklet cites the help of the Medical Bureau and North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The publication rallies for Republican economic support by using Kea’s persona as a brave young woman who left a steady nursing job at Harlem Hospital to risk her life for Spanish democracy and to fight against rising fascism in Europe. Although the authorship of the pamphlet is vague, the text does include several direct quotes from Kea as well as word-for-word excerpts from her type-written manuscript. The mix of first and third-person narration allows for multiple viewpoints and commentary on Kea’s activities while at the same time providing eye-witness testimony.

Ann Donlon suggests the pamphlet was authored by Thyra Edwards. A tireless activist who grew up in Texas, Edwards (1897-1953) had joined the Houston NAACP when it was formed in 1918. In the 1930s, she traveled through Europe, including wartime Spain. Her experience with Kea is documented in a personal scrapbook about her time in Spain and in the U.S. touring major cities seeking economic support for the Spanish Republic. The unsigned pamphlet leaves the narrative voice to Kea, who is the main character and often directly quoted. The ambiguity of authorship can be frustrating when trying to authenticate the stories and sentiment behind the words, but if we consider the value of the multiple-voiced narrative that emerges in the document and the compelling, direct attack on racism, the text becomes an invaluable testimony of Black feminist solidarity and a metaphorical call to arms.

Much of the information in the pamphlet comments on the poor conditions at the field hospital in Villa Paz that fostered Kea’s ingenuity in finding ways around the lack of resources. She filled hot water bottles with soup, for example, and boiled eggs in wine when water ran out. There are several copies of the pamphlet in various archives, but one copy in the Fredericka Martin papers is marked with handwritten notes in the margins declaring information such as the bombings and operating room conditions as “false” and “exaggerated,” similar to the editorializing seen in the article in Health and Medicine. The handwriting is the same in the pamphlet as in the article, confirming Martin’s ongoing censoring of Kea’s story. A note written in the margin by fellow nurse at Villa Paz, Ann Taft, stating that “all your comments are correct,” confirm Martin’s questioning of Kea.

Yet Kea’s fellow nurses ignore a striking feature of the Kea’s narrative in the pamphlet: the introduction, which frames her experience. “The lynching of Negroes in America,” the pamphlet states, “discrimination in education and in jobs, lack of hospital facilities for Negroes in most cities and very poor ones in others, all this appeared (…) as part of the picture of fascism: of a dominant group impoverishing and degrading a less powerful group.” In the pamphlet, in other words, defending Republican Spain becomes a revolutionary act of transnational Black solidarity in the face of rising fascism in Africa and Europe that is directly equated to racism in the U.S.

The importance of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia cannot be underestimated as a springboard for Black political and social consciousness in the 1930s. Robin D.G. Kelley has explained that Ethiopia served as a global imaginary for Black freedom and self-rule. The outcry against the Italian invasion became a global movement that brought together many sectors of Pan-Africanism and fostered a real solidarity. “The defense of Ethiopia,” Kelley writes, “did more than any other event in the 1930s to internationalize the struggles of black people in the United States.” Martin’s disqualification of Kea’s testimony fails to acknowledge weight of this broader mobilization. It’s up to us researchers to recognize Salaria Kea as the important figure in Black feminist transnational history that she is.

Kathryn Everly is a professor of Spanish at Syracuse University. Her interests are women writers, film, and the Spanish Civil War. For more on Kea, see her article “Intersectional Silencing in the Archive: Salaria Kea and The Spanish Civil War” forthcoming in the Hispanic Studies Review.