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Medicine and the Making of Black History Month

While many of us have been aware, or have recently learned, of the ethical horrors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the gynecological experiments conducted on enslaved women by J. Marion Sims, these were not the first instances that the scientific and medical communities exploited the bodies of Black Americans to build modern medicine. Western medicine was established through the suffering of enslaved Africans as white physicians often used them for unethical experimentation and continued to do so well into the late 20th century. Willingly—and often unwillingly—Black Americans have contributed so much to medical knowledge. Even as their cultural traditions were wiped away, African methods of smallpox inoculation were introduced in America to protect everyone against that deadly virus. These events are why Black history is also the story of medical history in the United States.

The Carol E. Burnett Black Student Union at Albert Einstein College of Medicine intends to create a year-round blog series documenting Black history in medicine and healthcare. We will focus on Black contributions to medicine and research, unethical experimentation, attempts to improve wellness in segregated communities, and the lasting effects of racialized patient care. The time for redemption of medicine’s culture is long overdue; we recognize that education must be the starting point. Before we explore our medical history, we need to place it in the context of the origins of Black History Month.

Black History Month (BHM) is a yearly observance of Black American contributions in the United States and has also become a global observance celebrating the contributions of members of the African diaspora in many countries. What often gets overlooked is the history of how this celebration started.

BHM grew out of Negro History Week, started in 1926 by historian and activist Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D. Dr. Woodson was the second Black man to obtain a Ph.D. at Harvard (after W.E.B. DuBois), and he was an academic dean at Howard University. The violent struggle of Black people in America to survive fueled his creation of this observance.

Negro History Week began in the wake of a six-year period of racial violence against Black Americans that followed what is now remembered as the “Red Summer” of 1919. Red Summer, which took place against the backdrop of the Spanish flu’s third wave, sparked historical riots such as the Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Arkansas Race Riots of 1919 in which Black World War I veterans helped and encouraged Black citizens to defend themselves against returning White veterans. More than 1,000 Black people were murdered in more than three dozen cities around the country.

Dr. Woodson saw then, as many Americans see now, the need to improve an understanding of Black history. The contributions of African American descendants of slavery were widely overlooked or simply ignored in American history textbooks, much as it still is today. It was a common belief that Black people never contributed to human progress, despite being forced to build the United States’ infrastructure, economy, and culture. In the winter of 1920, Dr. Woodson addressed the members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., of which he was a graduate member, proposing a week to mark Black achievement. They voted to launch a national initiative, Negro History and Literature Week, which was first observed in April of 1921.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson decided the celebration should be facilitated through the Association of Negro Life and History, an organization he founded. The name of the event became Negro History Week and was observed during the second week of February. That period was chosen to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln which at the time were considered holidays in Black American culture. Rather than simply sharing Black history facts, the focus was on improving the teaching and education of Black history in public schools. Very few departments of education were responsive, but Dr. Woodson was persistent in order to ensure the physical and intellectual survival of Black Americans. He once said, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world and it stands in danger of being exterminated.” The week was met with much excitement in segregated Black schools by the 1930s. As the years went on, various mayors across the country endorsed it as an official observance, and its popularity spread.

In 1970, Black Student Union (BSU) members at Kent State University were the first to celebrate Black history for the entire month of February, with BSU members and Black educators leading the way toward a national month-long celebration. Their proposal came to fruition six years later when President Gerald Ford recognized BHM during the United States’ bicentennial. BHM became a national observance. Many Black Americans today, however, have reservations about the observance as they believe acknowledgement of their contributions should be incorporated into the curriculum year-round as it is pure American history.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we must remember its original purpose of improving both the teaching and education of Black history throughout all institutions; that includes becoming familiar with the historical and structural biases that continue to permeate both academia and medicine. While BHM is a time for Black Americans and fellow members of the diaspora to celebrate their history and accomplishments, it is also a time to get familiar with some uncomfortable history. Challenge yourself this month; don’t settle for whitewashed civil rights historical “facts.” In conversations about Black history, always place Black voices and perspectives at the center and remember that Black history is American history.

Medical inequities have been evermore apparent considering the COVID-19 pandemic in which Black and indigenous deaths have been largely overrepresented in America. It is equally harrowing that the populations that need the vaccine the most due to socialized racial disparities are also the most skeptical of the solution thanks past exploitation by medical institutions. It is imperative to change the current culture in medicine; that starts with understanding the past. From there, we can shape a better future.

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