“The Service I Rendered Was Just as True”: African American Soldiers and Veterans as Activist Patients

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Abstract

ABSTRACT

In this article, I examine how African American soldiers and veterans experienced and shaped federally sponsored health care during and after World War I. Building on studies of the struggles of Black leaders and health care providers to win professional and public health advancement in the 1920s and 1930s, and of advocates to mobilize for health care rights in the mid-20th century, I focus primarily on the experiences and activism of patients in the interwar years. Private and government correspondence, congressional testimony, and reports from Black newspapers reveal that African American soldiers and veterans communicated directly with policymakers and bureaucrats regarding unequal treatment, assuming roles as “policy actors” who viewed health and medical care as “politics by other means.” In the process, they drew attention to the paradoxes inherent in expanding government entitlements in the era of Jim Crow, and helped shape a veterans' health system that emerged in the 1920s and remained in place for the following century. They also laid the groundwork for the system's precedent-setting desegregation, referred to by advocates of the time as “a shining example to the rest of the country.”

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