Celebrating Pioneers of Black Health and Wellbeing During Black History Month
Presented by DMH + UCLA Prevention Center of Excellence
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ― Audre Lorde
The achievements of Black folks in medicine in the U.S. dates back to the 1700s, with enslaved Black women serving as midwives and African herbalists using folk medicine to treat and cure illnesses. Today, as the history of vaccines continues to make headlines, little is mentioned of Onesimus, an enslaved West African who shared his knowledge on inoculation against smallpox, which helped pave the way to the development of the first smallpox vaccine.
Health and wellbeing have always been integral to Black life. Yet, systemic racism and white supremacy have made many Black wellbeing practices and innovations invisible for centuries. Despite our knowledge of this, the erasure of historic medical discoveries and advances achieved by the Black community continues today as white researchers fail to cite Black researchers and name them as co-authors in present-day health equity research.
To talk about Black health and wellbeing is to acknowledge that racism is a public health issue rooted in wage inequities, racial apartheid, and inadequate access to education and medical resources, all of which increase the likelihood of disease and death, as mentioned by pediatrician and health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd.
In honor and recognition of Black History Month, we are sharing a list of five of the earliest documented Black pioneers who not only advanced medicine as we know it, but worked tirelessly to prioritize the health and wellbeing of Black communities.
- George Washington Carver (1864 – January 5, 1943): George Washington Carver was an agriculturalist, botanist, and teacher who sought to liberate his people through food sovereignty. Washington Carver taught practical farming methods, such as soil regeneration, that helped Black farmers grow soil-enhancing, protein-rich crops. Known as the plant doctor, Washington Carver’s work aimed to heal the land and his people by teaching Black farmers self-sustaining food preservation techniques, sharing recipes for nutritious meals, and livestock care.
- James McCune Smith (1813-1865): James McCune Smith was an author, abolitionist, activist, litterateur, and the first African American to earn a medical degree. Recognized as one of the leading doctors in New York, McCune Smith, who was born into slavery, was denied admission to universities in the U.S. for being Black, but was admitted to Scotland’s University of Glasgow. After earning his degree, McCune Smith became the first Black physician to open his own medical office and pharmacy in the U.S. Much of his work challenged pseudoscientific justifications for African American oppression. McCune Smith also served as the medical director of the Colored Orphan Asylum, an institution in New York City, for 20 years, where he provided medical assistance to homeless and destitute Black children.
- Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895): Rebecca Lee Crumpler started as a nurse, assisting several Bostonian doctors for eight years, and became the first Black woman in the U.S. to receive an MD degree. Lee Crumpler was also the first and only Black woman accepted into Boston’s New England Female Medical College. After graduating, Lee Crumpler became the first Black woman physician in the U.S. To put it into perspective, when she graduated in 1860, there were 54,543 physicians in the U.S., and only 300 were women – all of which were white. She later moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she provided free medical care to formerly enslaved men, women, and children. For many years, Lee Crumpler faced racism and sexist behavior from her own colleagues. In 1883, she published “A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts,” dedicated to mothers, nurses, “and all who may desire to mitigate the afflictions of the human race.”
- Harriet Tubman (March 1822 – March 10, 1913): Harriet Tubman, most known for rescuing enslaved persons by way of the Underground Railroad, was an herbalist, forager, farmer, community nurse, cook, and abolitionist. When helping others navigate the Underground Railroad, Tubman used herbalism and botany to keep babies quiet and to help them sleep. Her knowledge of edible plants and herbal medicine helped sustain and nourish rescued individuals and families, ensuring that on all of the raids she conducted, not one life was lost.
- Maude E. Callen (November 8, 1898 – January 23, 1990): Maude E. Callen was a nurse, midwife, and teacher who also served as a “doctor, dietician, psychologist, bail-goer, and friend” to thousands of impoverished patients in South Carolina. In 1923, after completed her nursing course at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Callen started her own practice as a nurse and midwife, operating a community clinic from her own home and servicing families up to 400 miles away. It is estimated Callen delivered 600-800 babies during her 60 years of practice, while also teaching midwifery to women in her community. In 1953, she opened the Maude E. Callen clinic, which she ran until her retirement in 1971.
In addition to this list, we would like to uplift the work of Black scholars and medical practitioners who have contributed their expertise to the UCLA Prevention Center of Excellence. Through their work, we can better inform ourselves of the severe discrepancies in treatment and accessibility that Black people continue to face in the U.S. healthcare system.
Pandemics and Policing: On Racism, Adversity, and Health: A virtual training presented by Rhea Boyd, MD, MPH, a pediatrician, public health advocate, and scholar who hones in on the relationship between structural racism, inequity, and health.
Recognizing and Challenging Implicit Bias: An Anytime Training presented by Domenique Harrison, MA, MPH, AMFT, APCC, a curriculum developer and equity expert at the UCLA Prevention Center of Excellence who helps others build awareness, have challenging conversations, and uplift marginalized and disenfranchised Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) voices.
From “Weathering” a Storm to Mandating an Evacuation – Forecasting the Racism Effect on Black Maternal and Infant Mortality: A virtual training presented by Valencia P. Walker, MD, MPH, the associate chief diversity and health equity officer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Black Male Grief Reactions to Traumatic Loss: Increasing Understanding, Healing, and Services Among Black Men in an Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Way: A virtual training presented by Allen E. Lipscomb, PsyD, MSW, LCSW, a clinical psychologist and social worker in the state of California specializing in providing anti-oppressive and inclusive mental health services to individuals, children, youth, and families of color.
The Courageous Educator: Addressing Racism and Microaggressions in the Classroom: An interview presented by Tyrone Howard, PhD, the director of the UCLA Center for Strengthening Children & Families, the UCLA Black Male Institute, and the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, and J. Luke Wood, PhD, associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion and distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University.
Processing Racial Trauma: A conversation with Nicole Green, PhD, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the executive director of the Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) Program, and Dr. Tyrone Howard. Green’s areas of interest are mental health prevention and education, intimate partner violence, women’s issues, academic success among students of color and diversity and campus climate concerns.
Anti-Racism in Autism Research and Treatment: Discussing a Way Forward: A virtual training presented by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Erin Graham who is managing a study of genetic risk for autism in the African American community.
Racial Protective Factors for Black Youth: Cultivating Resilience: A virtual training presented by Shawn C. T. Jones, PhD, MHS, a third-year assistant professor in the counseling program in the Psychology Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Jones endeavors to impact the psychosocial wellbeing of Black youth and their families by a) exploring mechanisms undergirding culturally relevant protective and promotive factors; b) translating basic research into interventions that harness the unique strengths of the Black experience; and c) disseminating this research to be consumed, critiqued, and enhanced by the communities the work intends to serve.