Saving the Race from Extinction: African Americans and National Negro Health Week

Today’s guest post is written by Paul Braff, a PhD candidate in American History at Temple University whose research focuses on African American history and public health during the twentieth century. On Tuesday, March 6, Paul will give The Iago Galdston Lecture: “Who Needs a Doctor?: The Challenge of National Negro Health Week to the Medical Establishment.” Click HERE to register for this event.

In 1896, Frederick Hoffman, a statistician for the Prudential Insurance Company of America, released his assessment of African American health. His Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro recommended against insuring the race and gave an emphatic confirmation of what Charles Darwin and other scientists and doctors had asserted for years: African Americans were going extinct.[1] 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.


A common joke in the early twentieth century.[2]

For Booker T. Washington, this negative view of the future of his race and the idea that blacks could not understand basic health or improve their situation had the potential to undermine all attempts at racial uplift. As he put it, “Without health and until we reduce the high death-rate [of African Americans] it will be impossible for us to have permanent success in business, in property getting, in acquiring education, to show other evidences of progress.”[3] For Washington, health was the building block upon which everything, political rights, economic self-sufficiency, even citizenship, rested.

To fight this white perception of African American health, in 1915 Washington launched a public health campaign, “National Negro Health Week” (NNHW). The Week focused on both public and private displays of health, emphasizing hygiene as well as painting and whitewashing, the latter overt actions to demonstrate that African Americans could achieve “proper,” or white, standards of cleanliness and connect being clean with health improvement. Thus, the Week incorporated Washington’s racial uplift philosophy as NNHW extolled health and cleanliness values to blacks that aligned with those of whites in the hope of decreasing racial differences. This non-clinical definition of health, in which practicing proper hygiene and painting, not physician overseen checkups and vaccinations, made one healthy, allowed African Americans to understand their own health and empowered them to become leaders in their communities. The straightforward and inexpensive activities the Week suggested were easy to duplicate and rally the community behind. The connections made in organizing a Week could then be used for more extensive African American social and political activities. Although he died later that year, the campaign lived on for another 35 years and became part of Washington’s legacy.


“National Negro Health Week: 17th Annual Observance, Sunday, April 5, to Sunday, April 12, 1931,” USPHS, Washington, D.C., 1931, cover, Folder 2, Box 5, “National Negro Health Week Collection,” Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, AL.

NNHW’s popularity attracted the interest of the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), and when the Great Depression made the Week difficult to finance, the USPHS took it over in 1932. With the vast resources of the USPHS behind it, the Week grew into a massive campaign that had millions of participants in thousands of communities participate each year.


Susan L. Smith, Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Black Women’s Health Activism in America, 1890-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1995), 70.

However, such participation came with a price as the USPHS worked to redefine the Week’s definition of health. Under the USPHS, physicians were the ultimate arbiters of health and the focus changed from cleanups and whitewashing to vaccination and getting regular checkups from doctors and dentists. With the white medical establishment more centrally enthroned in the Week and the nascent Civil Rights Movement starting to take shape, African Americans called for an end to a Week based upon race.

National Negro Health Week illuminates the important role non-experts can play in defining personal health, and how those definitions can become internalized. Exploring the role of non-experts allows historians to examine the ways in which social constructions of health can be challenged, and the study of NNHW better positions scholars and public health officials to understand how race and health intersect today.

[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, UK: John Murray, 1871). Reprint. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004, 163; Frederick L. Hoffman, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1896), 35; George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1971), 236-237, 252-258.
[2] “An Important Work,” April 12, 1926, in “The Tuskegee Health Collection, 1926,” 853, Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, AL (TA). See also “Negro Health Week Conference,” November 1, 1926, 1, Box 1 Folder 2, “National Negro Health Week Collection,” TA and Edwin R. Embree, “Negro Illness and the Nation’s Health,” Crisis, March 1929, 84, 97.
[3] Booker T. Washington, Gallery Proof, January 15, 1915, 827, “National Negro Health Week,” Reel 713, Booker T. Washington Collection, TA.

3 thoughts on “Saving the Race from Extinction: African Americans and National Negro Health Week

  1. This was a wonderful read. Thank you. As a former USPHS Officer I learned a little more about the service and its involvement in the public health of communities.

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