Today’s post was written by Tiffany Walker, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
“National Negro Health Week” began in 1915, in response to disturbing findings by the Tuskegee Institute that highlighted the poor health status of African Americans in the early part of the 20th Century. At a session of the Tuskegee Negro Conference in 1914, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington brought forth data, which showed the economic costs of the poor health status of the black population in the United States.
The U. S. Public Health Service then instituted “National Negro Health Week” in response to these findings, in order to improve the health status of the black population by educating members of the community, providing greater access to healthcare, and encouraging an increased number of black professionals in the field of public health. National Negro Health Week was observed during the first week of April, and focused on educating black communities throughout America on methods of acquiring health care and informing students on proper health practices.
The creation of National Negro Health Week resulted in the formation of the National Negro Health Movement, which formed to improve the status of black health in America year round. Organizations that participated in this movement included the Annual Tuskegee Negro Conference, the National Medical Association, the National Negro Business League, and the National Negro Insurance Association. The movement, in collaboration with the U. S. Public Health Service, published the “National Negro Health News” quarterly. The publication focused on planning for annual National Negro Health Week activities, as well as reporting on new data and reports related to the status of black health.
One particular health issue that faced the black population in the 20th century was the amount of individuals contracting tuberculosis. Assistant Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service Taliaferro Clark, M.D. reflected on the importance of addressing the relatively high mortality rate of black tuberculosis patients as compared to whites. In his 1932 “The Negro Tuberculosis Problem” address, he stressed the importance of black medical professionals, specifically, the role that the black public health nurses could play in combating this high mortality rate.
The 1930s saw a significant increase in the number of black women entering into the nursing profession, which had previously been dominated by white, single women. The number of black women in the nursing profession steadily increased throughout the 20th century, and would eventually rise from just a few thousand in the beginning of the century to hundreds of thousands by the end. Programs like the National Negro Health Week and the subsequent National Negro Health Movement helped to play a role in this increase in the earlier part of the 20th century. Photographs from the series Public Health Service Historical Photograph File, 1880-1943 (NAID 522915) helped to spread the positive image of the black public health nurses to members of the black community. These images were staged, in order to encourage more African-American women to enter the profession.