The story points to a road in Zaragoza, Spain, a city deep in the northeast region of the country. It was 1937, and Salaria Kea, a 20 year old black nurse had become separated from her unit. Bathed in the tender light of early morning, she had stopped for a moment to re-orient herself. But, it would hopeless. The empty road seemed infinite; in both directions, it wound its way through a valley, quaint and picturesque. Choosing a direction, she began walking, taking in the peace that dropped from her surroundings. The lush vale and the sun and shifting light were a reprieve from the unending terrors of a civil war that brought her young soldiers with their arms and legs and faces blown off. It was a miracle how some survived.
But, as her thoughts drifted, the silence was rent by the roar of a motor and the screeching of brakes.[i] Then things happened fast: Two soldiers. Shouting. In German. They were, as she recalled “the first German soldiers I had seen, real soldiers, with armbands and insignias on their caps.” Nazis.
She ran through the field toward the valley drenched in sunlight, but she stumbled, falling face first into the earth. Then the hands, and the rifle, and their voices. Bellowing.
In the locked room, somewhere in Spain, time inched on; during the day, they left her alone, but at night, the Nazi’s took her to upstairs where she could see the courtyard. Outside she heard women and children praying before the guns resounded across the countryside. Then silence. In her memoirs, Salaria recalled how all day, her mind raced between thoughts of being executed and recollections of how she had arrived in that room.
Born in Millegeville, GA on July 13, 1913, Salaria’s life began with tragedy. At six months old, her father was killed by a patient at the Ohio State Hospital where he worked. Widowed with no savings, her mother took her four young children and moved to Akron, Ohio where she lived with family.
But two years later, she returned to Georgia and married a farmer, leaving her kids behind—Salaria’s older brothers took on the role of father-figures, supporting her financially and emotionally. Despite the early trauma of abandonment, Salaria thrived. She was bright and quick and excelled in athletics. Navigating a landscape of racial inequities had also imbued her with a fierce sense of justice, of wanting to set things right. Her first opportunity came in High School.
Wanting to join the basketball team, she was told “no Negro had ever been admitted on the team.” With the support of her brothers, she fought the school board, pushing for a transfer and a promise: in her new school she could play sports without restriction. She won, and the experience of resisting left her feeling liberated and powerful. She saw how her voice could have meaning in a world where her skin color rendered her meaningless.
In 1930, after graduating High School, she headed to New York City to study nursing at the Harlem Hospital Training School. Having worked summers for Dr. Bedford Riddle, a successful Negro physician in Akron, Salaria had developed a proclivity toward medicine, and Riddle urged her to study nursing. She arrived in a city tumbling deeper into a Depression where unemployment was flourishing and so was racism.
Harlem Hospital was no exception.
With a mixed staff, tensions ran high. Often the white staff balked at the black, sneering and making snide remarks. That was tolerable or tolerated. But, for Salaria and five classmates, the segregated dining tables were not. One afternoon, the group of nurses seated themselves at a white table and refused to leave; when pressed, they stood up, grabbed the corners of the table cloth, and overturned it.
New York’s mayor responded immediately: setting up a committee to investigate, he heard the demands for reformation by the students that included discontinuing racial discrimination in the dining room. He agreed to all their demands—for years, Salaria would continue to vocalize the deplorable conditions at Harlem Hospital, especially on the maternity ward that was rife with communicable diseases. Despite being warned to “mind her work,” she kept talking, and eventually a public investigation ensued.
By aligning herself with like-minded progressive nurses, she became well-versed in national and international politics, allowing her to see the connection between events in Harlem to events in Europe and Africa, especially German fascism and Italy’s hedging to claim the Ethiopian kingdom. When news of the second Italo-Ethiopian war broke on October 3, 1935, Harlem was turned upside down. Immediately, leaders organized a people’s march for Ethiopia, drawing 25,000 blacks and anti-fascist Italian Americans. Volunteers arrived in droves to fight in brigades, but the lack of equipment prevented them from fighting on the front lines; Salaria joined nurses in raising money and gathering medical supplies to send to the ailing kingdom. But, then Mussolini intervened in Spain’s civil war. Siding with the Hitler and the insurgent generals, who had staged a coup and overthrown the democratically elected government, the steely eyed fascist entered Spain, and Salaria felt her calling.
On March 27, 1937, she boarded the liner the Paris in New York Harbor as a volunteer with the Abraham Lincoln International Brigade. Crossing the Atlantic with a small party of twelve nurses and doctors, Salaria was the only black person in the group and would remain the only black nurse to join the brigade, but soon the horrors of Spain’s war would blur color lines.
In Spain, she was confounded by the crumbling villages and desitution, all products of a fascist regime, she wrote:
“all the poor people…they couldn’t read and they couldn’t write and the way they lived was to me unbelievable. My whole concept changed. I had had the feeling that in America only the Negroes suffered and that in other countries where there were no Negroes everything was lovely.”
A natural empath, she left her own plight behind—her fight for racial justice in America would come later, now, she declared: “I was in the right place, helping people, and it didn’t matter what had been happening to me in America.”
The field hospital was set up in Villa Paz, the former summer palace of King Alfonso XIII near Madrid. Set in a lavish garden it was a stunning piece of architecture with a tiled swimming pool enclosed by towering cypress trees. But since 1931, it had fallen into disarray. Outside the palace walls lived peasants in cramped, dank hovels with dirt floors and the stench of burning cow dung, set alight for heat, permeating the air.
Salaria and the volunteers cleaned out the palace, raised money for a gas pump and new electrical wiring. But, these conveniences couldn’t stop the flies and mosquitos that buzzed around the open wounds of patients too weak to wave them away. Clean water was scarce, so was food that often ran out, leaving the staff hungry. Supplies were always low, forcing nurses to wash used bandages; at night, they slept on the floors in the peasant’s homes. Some volunteers left, but Salaria wasn’t deterred. One look at the beds cast away any doubts about her choice to come and remain.
Soldiers from all over the world who came to fight for democracy lay maimed, their faces disfigured and bodies broken, pieces of them buried in trenches or battlefields. During the weekend, the women came clutching pale-eyed babies with distended stomachs and chests that gurgled. Their skin hot to the touch was awash in rashes and ulcers and filth. With the distant sounds of bombs exploding, shaking the ground, the nurses worked until the days bled into each other. Nothing mattered but the sick and ailing. Salaria recalled how no one cared about race or nationality; for her, such unity would be only way to rise against the spread of fascism.
One day, in the midst of war, the unexpected happened: Salaria met an injured Irish Solider, John Patrick O’Reilly. He was young and dapper and white, and Salaria was moved by him. He wrote her love poems, and spoke with her at length about North America, Ireland, and the ripple effect of fascism on the races throughout the world. They fell in love, and on October 2, 1937 they married at Villa Paz.
Six months later, while eating in a trench, a bomb exploded, injuring her and ending her time in Spain. Returning to the states, she continued working, insuring that sterile medical supplies were shipped to Spain. Her husban joined her some years later but their lives were often disrupted by racial biases.
World War II sent the couple overseas again; upon their return, they remained, finding jobs stateside. Over the years in the quiet of their Akron home, Salaria often recalled her time in Spain. Despite being starved, captured, tortured, and severely wounded, she remembered it as “the best years of her life because she was free of discrimination,” and spent her days working toward abolishing fascists, whom she saw as “the enemies of the world.”
On May 18th, 1990, Salaria passed away in home. Her life was rich, full of crystallized moments where her voice and actions righted the injustices of the world, and for a brief moment in time, things moved in harmony and peace prevailed. This year, hers is a legacy worth remembering.
[i] This story comes from Kea’s memoirs, and she’s written differing accounts about this particular incident. In one, she is walking on the road, and in another, she is standing on the side of a hill. My choice was purely editorial. It should also be noted, that recent scholarship suggests that Kea embellished the story.