Female Badasses in History: Salaria Kea (1913-1990)
Salaria Kea was the one of the few African-American women to serve with the American volunteer unit, the Abraham-Lincoln-Brigade, in the Spanish Civil War. Out of her Christian and also Communist convictions, she used her skills as a nurse to dedicate her life to social change and the improvement of the lives of the disenfranchised, poor, non-privileged, and oppressed in the United States and other countries. Despite her rather unique story and her life-long commitment and activism against racism, prejudice, and oppression, her life-story is not very well documented and her life largely forgotten outside of circles that concern themselves with the history of US-volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.
Salaria Kea was born in 1913 in Georgia. Early on in her life her father, who worked in a sanatorium was killed by a patient there and subsequently the family moved to Akron, Ohio. Kea was the only child in her family that completed high school but she still had to work besides school in a doctor’s office to support her family. She wrote that this was what prompted her to become a nurse. Nursing schools in Ohio however rejected her on basis of her race, so in 1930 Kea moved to New York to start training as a nurse at the Harlem Hospital Training School from which she graduated in 1934. After graduation she become head nurse of Sea View Hospital’s tuberculosis ward and became involved in left-wing politics culminating in her joining the Communist Party in 1935. Later on, she would omit the fact that she had joined the CP because in her life in post-WWII America this would become a factor of discrimination on top of the already existing discrimination based on her race she had to face.
Her involvements in left-wing politics lead Kea to her first activist campaign. In 1935 fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia – one of the few nations in Africa that had never been colonized – in order to re-built a fascist version of the Roman Empire. Kea was involved in aid work such as raising money and medical supplies to send to Ethiopia. She also tried to volunteer to go to Ethiopia but the Ethiopian government did not accept international volunteers at that point in time. A year later she tried to volunteer with the American Red Cross to help flood victims in the Mid-West but again was rejected on basis of her race. The same year the Spanish Civil War broke out. A fascist clique of generals staged a coup d’etat against the democratically elected left-wing government in Spain. The western powers decided on a policy of non-involvement in the conflict and Spanish Republican Forces – made up of centrist and left-wing Democrats, Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists – had to face the General Franco’s fascist forces, which were actively supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, with only marginal support by the Soviet Union. Thousands of men and women from virtually all over the world decided to volunteer to fight for the Spanish Republic with the volunteers from the US forming the Abraham-Lincoln-Brigade. Kea also decided to volunteer and in1937 sailed for Spain as the only African-American female in the medical corps of the Abraham-Lincoln Brigade.
In Spain she was assigned to a hospital in Villa Paz where she treated wounded volunteers, members of the regular army of the Spanish Republic, and civilians wounded in the fighting especially by the extensive civilian bombing campaign Spanish fascists launched with the help of Nazi Germany. Despite the horrors she saw during that time, Kea refers in her own accounts to this time as “the best of my life.” “Finally I was not seen as a Negro or as a woman but as a human being”, were her own words. She still had to battle racism from her fellow American volunteers though. Several of them refused to associate with her and she even speaks of one of the American doctors she worked with referring to her as a “Nigger wench”.
It was also there in Spain she also wrote extensively about the parallels between American racism, European anti-Semitism, and Spanish fascism, which only deepened her conviction to fight oppression everywhere. And fight oppression she did, not only by treating the wounded but also in the ranks of the fighters of the Spanish Republic. She would actively challenge any form of discrimination within the group of volunteers and never let anyone silence her.
During her time she also met her later husband, John Patrick O’Reilly, an Irishman who had come to volunteer with the British brigade in Spain. After she had recuperated from her injuries sustained in a bombing raid in Barcelona, the two married and Kea returned to the United States in 1938 where she not only lobbied and raised money for the cause of the Spanish Republic but also managed to gain an immigration certificate for her husband in 1940.
Kea served again, this time in WWII in 1944, after the US military had started accepting African-American females. After the war she and her husband moved to New York where she started working in hospitals again and stayed involved in left-wing politics, especially anti-racism campaigns. The McCarthy years were very difficult for Kea since on top of the race-based discrimination she and her husband had to face as an interracial couple, she was also discriminated against based on her political convictions. Several employers turned her down, it is suspected that the FBI had a file on her, and even threats against her life and property were issued.
In 1973 she retired and the couple moved back to Akron, Ohio. She stayed involved in campaigns against racism and oppression for the rest of her life. She also used her skills as a nurse to help by volunteering to provide medical aid for free in poor neighborhoods in New York and later on to the impoverished inhabitants of Akron.
She died after a long illness in 1990.
Salaria Kea was an outstanding woman and deserves to be remembered as such. The knowledge of her life, outstanding commitment, and passionate activism deserves to be spread and celebrated for she was a truly outstanding and amazing woman that dedicated her life to good causes and social change.