By Ann Muder
About 40 years ago, Col. Cleo DeGraffenreid was preparing to make a speech on African Americans in the military for Black History Month when she got a call from the organizer, who asked if she was sitting down.
After looking through National Guard records, the organizer discovered DeGraffenreid was the top-ranking Black female in the National Guard — not just in Missouri, but in the whole nation.
That record may have come as a surprise to her, but DeGraffenreid has been breaking barriers for most of her life. Her career has taken her from working as a nurse in the 1950s to moving up in nursing leadership to eventually earning full colonel status in the National Guard.
After graduating from high school in Oklahoma, DeGraffenreid knew she wanted to be a nurse. However, it was difficult at the time to find a place she could go to school.
“The only nursing schools I could go to, that my parents could afford, were those run by the city,” she says.
At first, she headed to Chicago, but when the head nurse at a hospital there informed her that they had already met their student quota for September, she headed to Kansas City where her aunt lived. She attended nursing school at General Hospital #2, which served the Black population in Kansas City. When she graduated in 1950, she accepted a job at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kansas City.
As a Black nurse in the 1950s, DeGraffenreid remembers having patients who didn’t accept her as their caregiver. One night, she was working the evening shift when a patient wouldn’t take medicine from her.
“I tried to explain that I was the only one available, but she kept saying, ‘There’s got to be someone else,’” she says.
She carried the medicine back to the nurses’ station and called the patient’s doctor, who came to the hospital.
“He said, ‘If you don’t take your medicine, I can’t treat you.’ The patient didn’t know what to say. Then he said, ‘You may not realize it, but you could get some of your best treatment from a nurse who is this color.’”
Her skills in nursing made her a valued asset at St. Mary’s among staff and physicians. One day, she got a phone call from a surgeon from another hospital. He asked her to come to General Hospital #2 to assist with a radical neck dissection.
“After the six-hour surgery, he was able to go home and get some sleep because he knew I’d take care of (the patient),” she says. For her work, the doctor paid her $25, she remembers.
After seven years at St. Mary’s, DeGraffenreid was frustrated at the fact that other nurses were getting promotions over her despite her experience. She decided to try something different and enlisted in the Air Force. She was stationed in Denver, where she was quickly promoted to head nurse in the operating room.
During surgeries, DeGraffenreid remembers that she could tell what the surgeon needed just watching what his hands were doing. “If he put his first finger on his thumb, we’d know what instrument that meant. If he put his hand out, he needed the Kelly (clamp).”
After two years, when it was time for her to either re-enlist or leave, she moved back to Kansas City to marry Lloyd Allen DeGraffenreid, a sergeant with the Kansas City Police Department. She returned to St. Mary’s Hospital where she was promoted to head nurse — the second Black head nurse at St. Mary’s at that time. After 13 years there, she moved to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City where she was second nurse in charge of the surgical outpatient clinic.
In the years that followed, DeGraffenreid left her nursing position to take care of her mother, who had suffered a stroke. In the meantime, she was still in the Air Force Reserves, where she moved up to the position of lieutenant colonel. She transferred to the Army National Guard after 13 years in the Air Force.
During all of this, education was a top priority for DeGraffenreid as well. While she was in the National Guard, she attended Columbia College-Kansas City and graduated with a business degree in 1976. She also took a Command and General Staff Officers course in San Antonio to further her career.
“I learned through the years that I needed to do everything I could if I wanted to get a little further,” she says. “Black people didn’t get the top positions easily. I put everything I could in my brain, so if the time came up for an opportunity to be promoted, there wouldn’t be any excuses.”
Her hard work paid off, as she earned a promotion to full colonel. At a Chief Nurses Conference for the National Guard, one of the nurses said the competition was tight. The Command and General Staff Officers course was what ultimately ensured her promotion.
Later, DeGraffenreid was chosen to be on the promotion board for the National Guard. “I sat on the board looking at records and helping decide who would receive promotions to colonel. It was quite an honor,” she says.
In 2015, DeGraffenreid was chosen to sit in the Buck O’Neil Legacy Seat during a Kansas City Royals baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. Honorees are chosen for making a difference in their community. She was awarded a plaque and honored throughout the game.
DeGraffenreid has the plaque in her sunroom. “It still gives me chills to look at,” she says.
Approximately 34,000 people were there in the stadium that night as the team showed pictures on the video board from her career, including her first picture from the military.
“It was something I’ll always remember,” she says.