– by Paul Braff*
In 1896, statistician Frederick Hoffman confirmed what Charles Darwin and other scientists and doctors had asserted for years: African Americans were going extinct. Within the context of the burgeoning professionalization of the medical field, such a conclusion had the potential to omit African Americans from medical care, especially when combined with the preconceived racial differences of the time. Indeed, white physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently wrote African Americans off as a lost cause, categorized the race as inherently unhealthy, and refused to treat black patients or used heavy-handed tactics, such as forced vaccinations, to improve black health.
To fight this perception, in 1915 Booker T. Washington inaugurated National Negro Health Week (NNHW), a 35 year public health campaign, and the subject of my dissertation. Washington, and his successor, Robert Moton, ran the Week for its first 15 years out of Tuskegee Institute. After a brief transfer of control to Howard University, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) decided to take over the Week in 1932. Under the leadership of Roscoe C. Brown, head of the Office of Negro Health Work, the campaign blossomed. Participation estimates increased from 475,000 in 1933 to millions by the mid-1940s as the Week became a National Negro Health Movement and increased its focus on year-round health improvement.