ENTHRONING HEALTH: THE NATIONAL NEGRO HEALTH MOVEMENT AND THE FIGHT TO CONTROL PUBLIC HEALTH POLICY IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY, 1915-1950
Committee memberSimon, Bryant
Berman, Lila Corwin, 1976-
SubjectAfrican American studies
African American health
Booker T. Washington
Permanent link to this recordhttp://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12613/4773
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AbstractIn the early 1900s, African Americans died at higher rates, got sick more often, and had worse health outcomes for almost all diseases when compared to whites. This disparity was due to a combination of racism, discrimination, and segregation. Most blacks could only afford to live in unhealthy conditions and had little or no access to medical professionals. Problematically, poor black health led many whites to think of blacks as being inherently diseased, promoting the segregation and discrimination that contributed to black ill health in the first place. This project examines Negro Health Week (NNHW), which became National Negro Health Week (NNHW), a public health campaign designed by African Americans as a systematic effort to improve their health that lasted between 1915 and 1950. The dissertation reveals the strategies African Americans used to empower themselves to combat ill health and the ways medical ideas became accessible to blacks. The racism of the white medical establishment limited the ability of African Americans to enter the medical profession. The small number of black doctors and nurses meant that NHW had to rely on non-medical professionals to teach health practices. Originally begun as a local campaign in Savannah, Booker T. Washington adopted Negro Health Week as a program to teach formerly enslaved blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama how to live. Working as sharecroppers and living in the small cabins they had inhabited as enslaved people, the majority of blacks lived in squalor. Margaret Murray Washington, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, laid the groundwork for NHW at Tuskegee. During her tenure as Lady Principal of Tuskegee, she created the Tuskegee Woman’s Club and brought together local organizations and women’s clubs to work with women in improving their homes by providing advice on basic hygiene and sanitation that they could implement with little cost. Booker T. Washington coopted the TWC program and brought Monroe Work from Savannah to Tuskegee to head up a more ambitious program which he envisioned expanding throughout the rural South. In 1900 Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) which included key black business men from throughout the nation, especially the South. The NNBL was instrumental in helping Washington to expand and publicize Negro Health Week. Under the leadership of Booker T. Washington and his successor, Robert Moton, NHW continued to focus on providing advice on basic hygiene and sanitation in one’s home and neighborhood. The emphasis on low-cost individual health practices, such as basic privy sanitation or proper whitewash technique, gave African Americans the ability to take ownership of their health. The Week explained how blacks could improve their health and that of the community even without medical professionals. After Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915, Moton succeeded in getting the support of the national Public Health Service (PHS) and National Negro Health Week came into existence in 1921. The Service’s vast network of health professionals and connections with state and local health departments allowed the campaign to expand out of the South. However, with the involvement of the PHS, the Week began to change. As hygiene practices became more accepted, the Service reframed NNHW to focus on vaccinations and regular physician and dentist visits. As medical professionals became NNHW leaders, the campaign’s message transformed from emphasizing how individuals could improve health on their own to describing how much people needed physicians to obtain good health. Under the PHS, lay people could do little to improve their health. Instead, they had to rely on the medical profession. The PHS used NNHW to reposition the medical establishment as the ultimate arbiter of African American health. Today, there is still a wide racial disparity in participation in, and access to, public health, and indeed in health outcomes in the United States. Understanding the Week can better position scholars and public health officials to understand how race and health intersect and the ramifications of health policies on race relations.
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