The Intersection of Health and Black History

The U.S. passed legislation in 1986 to recognize formally Black History Month.

I would like to dedicate my article today to honor and recognize Black History Month.

The significance of February as Black History Month stems from Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who in 1926 started “Negro History Week” through the organization he founded: the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Although regularly celebrated throughout African American communities, it was not until 1986, the first year we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday, that Black History Month was formally recognized via legislation passed three years earlier by House and Senate, with the designation of the month of February as “National Black History Month.” That year, Presidential Proclamation 5443 noted that “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.”

Each year, the ASALH focuses on a priority for celebration and recognition. This year, they selected the theme of Black Health and Wellness. This theme pays tribute to the legacy and role of Black scholars and medical practitioners who have contributed to improving health outcomes in their communities, such as Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American physician to earn a medical degree in 1837, or Mary Eliza Mahoney, who became the first African American professional nurse in 1879. This month, we also recognize the medical and nursing schools that have paved the way for many professionals in our healthcare field, such as Meharry Medical College, Howard University College of Medicine, and Provident Hospital and Training School, to name a few.

Although the advancement of civil rights has progressed over the years, we must acknowledge the deplorable conditions and treatment of African Americans who historically have found themselves unable to obtain medical care from hospitals or clinics serving whites, and who even served as test patients for medical treatment for cancer, polio, and syphilis.

The health disparities for Black communities are overwhelming even today, as individuals continue to deal with lack of accessible healthcare, with impactful statistics existing related to higher percentages of African Americans who have died from COVID-19, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. In 2018, the rates of suicide for Black children ages 5 to 12 exceeded white children.

For this February, ASALH requests that our healthcare partners and communities focus on the physical and mental health and wellness of African Americans, and to not only provide access to medical care, but also offer holistic prevention and healing.  

So, my question for you today is this: is your hospital or health system celebrating and recognizing Black History Month? For the Survey Results from Monitor Monday, click here.

Programming Note: Listen to Tiffany Ferguson’s live reports on SDoH Mondays on Monitor Mondays, 10 Eastern.


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