Biographies/Salaria Lillie Kea

Tags: African American Nurse NAACP Member Of Communist Party American Medical Bureau Heart of Spain (1937) Victoire de la Vie (1937) POW WWII Veteran

Researcher: Corinne Pita, Stuyvesant '20

Salaria Lillie Kea was an African American woman born July 13, 1913 in Milledgeville, Georgia. Salaria’s father was killed in WWI in 1914: he was a seaman, whose ship got blown up in international waters. As a result, she never met her father. She had 3 brothers, all of whom grew up in different states but whom she never lost contact with; Andrew, who grew up in Chicago, George, who lived in Key West, Florida, and Arthur who resided in North Carolina, living with their mother’s only sister. Salaria, on the other hand, was taken to her mother’s father, a Caucasian man named Samuel Moses III, living in Akron, Ohio. He was the one who set up Salaria with her foster family, the Jacksons, when she was three years old. Her foster mother was a schoolteacher who had to travel to Kentucky to teach due to race restrictions on teaching in their hometown, which was a prelude to the kind of racial restrictions Salaria would face in her life as a result of the profession she would eventually pursue. Salaria was mostly taken care of by her foster father and grandmother, who owned a grocery store in town, but she went on to live with another family, the Harris Family, whose mother was also a schoolteacher. With the amount of school teachers in her life, Salaria at a young age wanted to be a schoolteacher, not knowing her destiny lay far beyond the borders of her hometown’s school system. When her oldest brother, Andrew, got married, he moved to Akron as well to support his little sister, and she moved in with him at his new home on Scott Avenue and Livingston Place, living with a close family member for the first time since her parents’ deaths. Because of her change in residence, she was allowed to transfer from Central High School in Akron to West High School, a major step up for her due to the former school prohibiting her participation in athletics as a result of her race. She was able to graduate from West High School as a well-known athlete and student, known in school as “Rodeo” and “SubKee”. These were nicknames she earned as a result of her athletic prowess, which apparently allowed her to substitute in any sport, including baseball and volleyball. She was also valedictorian of her high school in 1930, and by that time she had decided to be a nurse as opposed to a school teacher, having gotten a job with a man named Dr. Riddle when she was fifteen years old. At this job, she worked in his office after school and on Saturdays, and during the summer she would unlock his office every day at 8am, scheduling appointments and taking calls on his behalf. Thanks to this job, she learned how to take a pulse, temperature, respiration measurements and such, studying under his wing for the entire time she worked there. She also learned about anatomy on a fake skeleton in his office with removable parts, where she would teach herself the anatomy of the human body. This job impacted her life so much and so quickly, she even decided to take Latin all 4 years of high school, because she realized there was so much Latin in medicine, having a background on the language could further improve her learning capabilities in the subject.


After graduation, Salaria made the decision to apply to nursing school, but all three nursing schools in her region denied her entry because of her race. So, her brother took the refusal letters she had received from the three schools and gave them to a woman named Mrs. Fristone, who sent the letters to Mrs. Roosevelt, wife of the Governor of New York at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt. She replied (not directly to Salaria, however), and soon enough, two coordinators were sent out to Akron to interview Salaria, one of which being Mrs. Estelle Massey Osborn, a prominent nurse battling discrimination in the nursing world. After her interview, Salaria was sent a letter from New York’s Department of Hospitals, stating that she had to go to Columbus, Ohio to take the entrance exam to enter the schools in New York. Soon enough, she was accepted and was to attend school at Bellevue Hospital, the Mother School of the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing. Here, she obtained a college degree, and she was actively involved in the racial integration of the hospital’s dining room during her time there. Her activeness against racial discrimination showed its true colors during her time in New York City, with her joining organizations like the NAACP, furthering her involvement in the civil rights movement while going through her education. After graduating in 1934, she began work at Sea View Hospital at the No-Return Unit for tuberculosis patients. At that time, out of the 26 hospitals that New York City owned, black nurses could only work in 4: Sea View, Harlem Hospital, Metropolitan, and Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. Working at Sea View, blacks were only allowed to work with tuberculosis patients, as there was great risk of infection working with these patients and white nurses and doctors saw this duty as too risky for them to partake in. White doctors never even entered the floor with the terminal cases, giving orders and instructions and receiving reports about patients in the Nursing Office only. Salaria was lucky enough to never have gotten the disease, unlike many of her previous classmates, who died as a result of exposure to the terminal patients. Lucky her; Salaria only weighed 97 pounds when she was in the unit, and catching the disease would surely have been a death sentence.There was an organization at the time fighting against having black nurses serving only in the tuberculosis units in New York City. A meeting was held with the leaders of the Department of Hospitals in New York City, a meeting which Salaria attended, listening to the discussion of the reasons for limiting the colored nurses to these 4 hospitals. The President of all the hospitals made a speech at this large meeting, stating that the reasons for these limitations was that, in twenty years, there wouldn’t be a colored problem in the United States anymore, because they will all be dead of tuberculosis. The room went dead silent, but Salaria, 24 years old at the time, stood up, holding up her head, and shouting to the President directly “And you are trying to make the dead lie [down].” The next day at Sea View, after she spoke at the Department of Hospital meeting, a doctor came in and removed her from the tuberculosis unit and put her in the employee’s clinic, and she never worked in the tuberculosis unit again. In 1936, she went to work at Harlem Hospital, the place she had learned nursing. 


Kea’s activism continued, as she collected money and medical supplies for a seventy-five bed field hospital for those suffering at the hands of Mussolini during his war against Ethiopia. Being in New York, she began to be influenced by left-wing groups and joined the Communist Party in 1935. At the end of 1936, while Salaria was still at Harlem, she heard about a flood that had affected parts of Ohio and Kentucky, and a bulletin board in her hospital was asking for volunteer medical personnel as members of the Red Cross. Salaria took the day off with some fellow English nurses to go and secure a spot as a volunteer; however, she was rejected once again on account of her race. Fortunately, the doctors who had gone to volunteer with her not only demanded a written statement that could support Red Cross’s rejection of Salaria, but a French doctor working at the hospital at the time took the statement to the French Embassy in New York. She was called down to the embassy, and instead of eventually being told she could work on the flood case in Ohio, she was accepted to go to France in February of 1937 with a medical unit to serve in Spain. By March 15th she had passed all tests and examinations required of volunteers in Spain, and resigned from Harlem hospital to leave for her new job across the Atlantic. She left New York on March 27, 1937, as part of the 3rd group of doctors and nurses from America going to Spain to serve in the Spanish Civil War as part of the AMB, the American Medical Bureau.


At the beginning of Salaria’s travels to Spain, she sat with 12 nurses and doctors, and it was clear to her that she was the only black person in the group. The head doctor, Dr. Pitts, who was in charge of the medical unit, made a scene about her being there and sitting at his table for lunch. Doctors and nurses aren’t allowed to sit down until the head doctor does, but he refused to sit down because of Salaria, screaming to the waiter “I have never sat at a table with a n***er wench and I’m not gonna start now.” The captain, who was French, along with one of the owners of the shipping line, were brought down to resolve the “issue,” but instead he offered Kea a first-class seat on the ship, and she roomed with the owner of the shipping line the rest of the way to France, not seeing her medical unit again until they got off the ship. She landed in France on April 3rd in the Mediterranean water of Port Bou, Gerona. When she got off the French ship, many French people took her in, and she and her roommate, who was a journalist, were featured on a postcard that went all over France and Spain. She lived in a top hotel in France until it was time to go to Spain, leaving for Spain a little while after the original American nurses and doctors she had travelled with had gone. Traveling with the reporter and the French group of doctors and nurses to the International Medical Unit, she was stationed at the hospital set up at Villa Paz, one of King Alfonso’s summer homes. When she arrived at “Hospital Americano No. 1”she found she had support from all the nurses and doctors there, since they were all from the North, unlike Dr. Pitts, the Head Doctor, who was actually from the South. Many of the doctors were actually from New York, so she was familiar with some of the people she was surrounded by. Salaria, a surgical nurse, was the only black nurse of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. A result, she gained popularity very quickly, even featuring for a few seconds in two renowned propaganda documentaries in support of the Republic: Heart of Spain directed by Herbert Kline (1937), and Victoire de la vie (Return to Life) directed by Henri Carier Bresson and Herbert Kline (1937). Kea was also married to her husband, Irish brigadier John P. O’Reilly, in a civil wedding in 1937.After working at the Villa Paz hospital for 4-5 months, Salaria was transferred to the Mobile Hospital Unit. She was sent to various areas where bombings had occurred, and her job consisted of picking up dead bodies and burying them, as well as helping the wounded. After treating the wounded, they were sent off to the hospital, and she continued on with her Mobile Unit. She went back to the hospital occasionally, only until she was sent to another place. At many of these war-torn villages, Salaria found nothing but children, with 50 to 100 in one place without any parents, as young as 2 years old. Salaria recounts being taken by the young children down to a brook to eat frogs, and seeing them use slingshots to shoot birds. The children also knew the correct plants to eat, which was how they survived until the nurses gave them proper food. Other villages had older people and many wounded civilians, with multiple international doctors assessing and diagnosing patients, including some Indian doctors. One time, her unit went to a cave, which is something Salaria had never been in before. She found a lot of space, and two cords; one red one which led you in, and a green cord which led you out. There were a lot of blankets without beds, some mattresses on the floor, and the floor was all sand. The first night, all Salaria had was her cape and a blanket she had been given to sleep on (she was given a mattress the next night). She was to help feed and take care of the children and make sure they stayed as healthy as possible. Some people she found during her time with the unit were so wounded they couldn't move and had to be treated on sight until they were well enough to be carried to a nearby hospital. When she was sent to the Front Lines, with her unit, she remembers being on a hill with the enemies, who were on the other side from her position. She says the enemies used to throw over grenades, and she could only watch as numerous comrades of hers got wounded or were killed. She had to pick them up and bring them down as it kept happening. The soldiers were taken care of in the Mobile Unit, and the cycle continued for a very long time, ending only when the fighting on that hill died down. The unit took their wounded to the closest hospital they could find, which was far because she was stationed in the North at the time, meanwhile the South was where most of their hospitals were stationed. There are two stories about her getting separated from her medical unit during the Spanish Civil War, both of which involve her disgruntled superior, Dr. Pitts. In her first account, she was in the front ambulance with Dr. Pitts, coming from Northern Spain back down South because the Fascists were moving down, so they were assisting a village holding a massive evacuation. According to Salaria, there were so many people and possessions coming out of the village, with animals and supplies tied onto citizens escaping, that it looked like a march. While driving, Dr. Pitts told Salaria to go down the line and make sure everyone that was exiting the village was in line. Salaria had to walk all the way down the hoard of people to make sure everyone from the village was where they were supposed to be, and when she had done that she made her way back towards the ambulance. However, she never found the ambulance, having been abandoned by the Unit (accidentally or not, she still doesn’t know).This was the first time she had ever gotten lost in Spain, and she walked and walked until around 12am, in March 1938. She was in a patch of woods all alone, deciding to lay down and fall asleep, awakened by a dog who patted her with his paw. She got up, and began following the dog down the hill, when all of a sudden, she spotted a priest with a hoard of sheep so large she thought it was Christ. The dog with Salaria barked at the priest, who bid Salaria to come down the hill with him. He asked her if she was Salaria Kea, to which she replied yes, wondering how the man knew her name. In response, he pulled out the same postcard with the French journalist and her that had been sent all over France when she had arrived in Europe. She told the priest what had happened to her, and the priest said he knew where her group was, and that the dog that had found her would lead her to a bridge across the Ebro River, where someone would meet her on the other side and take her to her station. The priest gave her something to eat, and she was kissed goodbye before walking half a day to the bridge, only to find that it had been blown up. She was planning to swim across the river, telling the dog to stay on the other side while she swam across and keep watch, when all of a sudden she heard a German accent from across the river. She got behind a tree to inspect the people who had spoken, but she saw men dressed in grey, which to her relief meant they were on her side. She finally revealed herself from the bushes, and the man who was previously speaking German greeted her in English, telling her how they had come to retrieve her and bring her from across the river back to her hospital. While one of the men prepared to swim to get Salaria, she brushed them off and told them she could swim just fine. She was greeted on the other side by a larger group of men with guns with orders to retrieve Salaria for her medical unit. She was taken on an ambulance truck back to a hospital where she then worked for a couple of weeks. Funnily enough, Dr. Pitts was there too, but instead of making a big deal of what had happened, Salaria never said a word about it to him, never believing that it had been done on purpose. Salaria’s second story was closer to the end of the war, when Salaria and her team were far up North again, and she found herself traveling yet again with Dr. Pitts. 


They were in a different part of Spain than before, stopping at various villages to pick up the sick and wounded, never staying more than a couple of days at one place. One time, they stopped at a huge building, where a loud scream and a child crying inside was heard. She was told by Dr. Pitts to bring whomever was inside with her back to the ambulance, and she went inside to find the people responsible for the sound. She called in Spanish for someone, but didn’t get a single reply, waiting for some time before heading back outside. However, when she went back out, everything, including her ambulance, was gone. So, she did the only thing she could do; she began to walk, walking until she thought she heard a car coming for her. She then stepped on the side of the road, waiting, but what she saw coming down the road was not a familiar vehicle, but a huge black car, with German Fascist soldiers dressed in their uniforms. Salaria ran as the soldiers began to shoot at her, swerving through trees until one shot banged a branch off a tree and hit Salaria in the head. Two German soldiers rushed up to her, speaking in German, which Salaria couldn’t understand. She was picked up and brought back to the car, being forced to walk outside, with the car driving right beside her. She was planning to fake a fall when they got to a certain point, and act like she couldn’t get up, but before that happened, Salaria fell accidentally. Because of that, she was seated right next to the driver of the car, who drove her all the way to a huge building that would be her prison. She was situated 5 flights underground, and in that prison she was left alone with cement bunks and no windows to the outside. Every couple of days the guards would bring her a coconut shell filled with soupy rice that she would have to eat to stay alive. The door had a window with bars where food could be slipped through, and one Spaniard woman used to slip Salaria cookies and bread. The whole time she was there, Salaria wore the same clothes and studied the Bible, having been given it 3 days after her imprisonment by the Spaniard woman at the prison so as to not lose her sanity. One early morning, Salaria was taken to look outside a window on the first flight above the ground, where she saw a tall grey wall. Men, women, and children of all ages were lined up, and she noted how some women were pregnant, and they were lined up in-between German soldiers with guns, 12 on either side. Salaria watched as the Germans outside were given the order to fire, and they shot the citizens who dropped to the floor like flies. There were some relatives of these people forced to watch the same way Salaria was, who screamed at the sight, but were then forced to dispose of the bodies, wash the blood off the walls and do other basic cleanup tasks after the firing squad finished. Salaria was led back to her prison, being told by the soldiers that tomorrow could be her day to be one of those unlucky people who found themselves in-between German gunners. 


She was a POW for seven weeks, she estimates, and at the end of those seven weeks, after having been brought up two or three times to witness various firing squads shoot at people, she was told that tomorrow was indeed her turn to face the firing squad. However, at 2am the night before that fateful day, someone called for her through the only door leading outside, having brought down her bags and things for her. The person who opened the door was a monk, who brought Salaria up four flights of stairs and outside to a ravine, where they ran into an Englishman with a flashlight, who led them further down. Later they ran into a Canadian, who led them even further down to a wooded area where, through the trees was a train waiting for her. Salaria was put into a crowded coach, where a man who called her by her name bid her to sit down amongst a packed car of confused people, and he handed her a bag with raw eggs, which she ate out of pure hunger. There were chickens, ducks, pigs, and all sorts of fowl on the train along with the passengers, so there was little to no room for anyone on board to be comfortable. She notes how she never saw the monk, the Englishman, or the Canadian ever again, and can’t remember their names.It was late 1938 by this time, and by 1 o’clock the next day, the train stopped and the passengers were told they could get off. At a restaurant on the hill, Salaria and a group of people went to grab lunch, and decided to eat and relax in a small forest nearby. However, as they were heading up there, Salaria heard planes coming over, and she and the others ran back down the hill to one of many ditches that were dug in the area to hide. She was able to grab a little girl into the trench before a bomb went off some ten feet away. She also told of a doctor, whose wife had been in the train to have a baby in France in a few weeks, but who died as a result of the planes firing on most of the passengers of the train, who were sitting outside their coaches eating lunch. The doctor was said to have wandered aimlessly after the shooting was over, until someone got a hold of him and cleaned the blood off of his non-wounded body. Despite being full before, 6 coaches were empty now as a result of the amount of people who died, which left room for the wounded to board and be treated on the train. After some time, Salaria found herself on the border of France, and stayed for three to four weeks in a hotel. She was then taken on a boat to France, and was greeted by four nuns, who took Salaria to their convent, where she was blessed by the priest and treated by the resident doctor, given food and allowed to rest. For four days, Salaria stayed in bed, and when she was finally able to get up she was taken to Lourdes. She was there for one week, and after that she was taken back down to the convent, where she stayed for some time. There was a young couple living down the hill from the convent, who would take Salaria after breakfast every morning to play tennis and go places, picking flowers for the convent and such. From there, Salaria went to Paris, where she stayed until she was taken home by the British Ship, the Queen Mary, arriving in New York in January 1939. When arriving back home, Salaria toured New York City, lecturing about her experiences during the Spanish Civil War at different Catholic schools, churches and nursing schools. The NAACP, the Urban League, Girl Scouts, Nurses Association, and other organizations reached out to her to hear about her experience and wanted her to share them. To incentivise her, she never paid a dime for her housing accommodations near the different areas she would speak in. She also worked hard to be able to get her husband to immigrate to the United States, as he was a citizen of a European country, a process made doubly difficult by the face that she and her husband were an interracial couple. Time in war didn’t end for Salaria with the Spanish Civil War, either: even though Salaria succeeded in getting her husband’s immigration status approved (he moved to the US in 1940), he was soon drafted for World War II. Salaria served as well, beginning in 1944 when African-American women were first recruited. 


After the war, the couple was able to return to New York, and Salaria went on to coordinate staff desegregation in several hospitals. Salaria returned to Akron only a couple of times before retirement, going on stretches as long as 8 years long without visiting her hometown. She lived in New York City until 1973. Despite her many accomplishments and high regard from the members of the Brigade, coming back home to Akron, she was still faced with the discrimination from which she left. Firstly, like many International Brigades volunteers, Salaria’s ties to Communism and to the Spanish Republicans hurt her job prospects upon her return to the United States. There was also trouble with her religious practices, a conflict she thought might have been resolved by the time she left for New York City.As a child, Salaria had belonged to the Catholic church; her father was a Catholic and her mother was a Methodist. However, when she was growing up, Salaria couldn’t go to Catholic churches in Akron due to racial restrictions, so she went to a range of different Christian churches, from Presbyterian to Baptists to Methodist. One of her relatives, who was pale in skin color, was allowed to attend th Catholic church, but her own husband couldn’t because he was black. When she moved back to Akron after retirement, she was told by relatives and friends who brought her to various churches that they had friends in the Catholic Church who could bring her to ones she could attend. However, from August 1973 to East Week in 1974, no one ever came to tell her where she could go to Catholic Church. In 1974, on Ash Wednesday, on Grant Street and Brown was a small Hungarian Catholic Church that Salaria decided to visit to see if she could attend service there. However, the woman at the door screamed at her, asking her what she wanted and telling her to get out, saying no black people could enter.


Salaria stated many times how her time in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the happiest of her life, because that was the one place she was treated as an equal, where her skill mattered more than her race. She died May 18, 1990. One interesting fact about Salaria’s accounts of the war is that they sometimes differ with each account. For this reason, Salaria has been accused of “self-aggrandizing” her memoirs for the sake of publicity and to support the civil rights cause with her stories, due to different accounts even with her early life and her parents. She has recorded giving two different accounts for her father’s death; one with him being stabbed to death by an asylum patient while working as a gardener at the Ohio State Hospital for the Insane in Columbus, and one with him working as a seaman during World War I, with his ship blown up at sea. So, when reading her story and her experience, it’s important to understand that Salaria was going up against resistance throughout her entire life. With the possibility that her stories were embellished, remember that no matter what, the battles she was fighting because of her race were real, and her accounts, however true they may be, ring well with the hardships she had to deal with as a result of her skin color.


O'Reilly, Salaria Kea. "Salaria Kea O'Reilly." Interview by John Gerassi. Tamiment Library, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archive, 7 June 1980,

Accessed 30 Mar. 2020.


Cañete Quesada, Carmen. “Salaria Kea and the Spanish Civil War: Memoirs of A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain.” In Black USA and Spain: Shared Memories in the 20th-Century. Ed. Rosalía Cornejo-Parriego. London: Routledge, 2019. 113-33.


Sharp, Emily Robins. “Salaria Kea's Spanish Memoirs.” The Volunteer, Members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, 4 Dec. 2011, Accessed 2 Apr. 2020.