In celebration of Black History Month, we remember Booker T. Washington as the founder of a historic initiative focused on addressing Black health disparities. Washington founded Tuskegee University, an HBCU formerly named Tuskegee Institute. What many do not know is that he also was the founder of National Negro Health Week, an annual observance in the United States from 1915 to 1951 dedicated to improving overall health in Black communities.
I was introduced to NNHW and Washington’s work in health education by Dr. Nadine Gracia, a former director of the Office of Minority Health under President Obama and fellow Stanford University alumnus. At the time, I was writing my book GET A GGRiPP and was interested in understanding historical examples of the intersection of culture and health.
Gracia recommended that I read an article on NNHW written by two academics, Dr. Sandra Crouse Quinn and Dr. Stephen B. Thomas. When I read the article, I was excited to know that there had been such a national observance focused on the gap between Black and White health status. I was surprised that I had never previously heard anything about it. And, of course, I was interested in the link between culture and health that NNHW represented.
Even more interesting than NNHW’s cultural focus was its underlying mission. I was intrigued by Washington’s fundamental motivation for NNHW: “The future of the race depends upon the conservation of its health.” So he established NNHW as the fundamental solution needed to achieve health improvement as a gateway to “other evidences of progress” in Black communities. For Washington, NNHW was not just about community health improvement, it was about something much broader – “the future of the race.”
As founder of the National Negro Business League, Washington argued that economic empowerment was the key to the future of Black Americans. In fact, in a speech by Washington that civil rights leader Dr. W.E.B. Dubois criticized as “the Atlanta compromise,” Washington suggested that social rights would be gained more successfully through economic means than through political means.
Washington further asserted that, based on the high costs of poor Black health, resolving Black health disparities was key to achieving economic means for Black people. Without good health, he contended, “It will be impossible for us to have permanent success in business, in property getting, in acquiring education, or show other evidences of progress.” He estimated that “sickness and death cost Negroes annually 100 million dollars.”
The link between health and culture that NNHW leveraged for its mission was clear. Washington and other NNHW organizers stressed the role of Black culture by focusing on cultural themes Blacks would respond to, such as the role of the church as a “major convener,” good speakers and music, food and inspirational speeches. In addition, NNHW was designed to leverage Black community organizations and agencies not only to reach and influence as many Black Americans as possible, but also to encourage cultural solidarity and community empowerment.
Supported by the cultural aspect, NNHW was, at heart, a week dedicated to health education. Washington tasked NNHW with educating the community on not only the health services available, but also how to do whatever was needed “to aid in improving their health conditions.” To that end, an important category to measure the success of NNHW’s annual impact was the number of educational activities offered and educational materials developed.
Washington’s NNHW is a wonderful example of turning intellectual discourse at a higher education institution into action, and of how higher education institutions can directly effect change and play a role in the education of the broader community. But there is a cruel irony to this history lesson.
Washington founded NNHW in 1915, the same year he died at the age of 59 from complications related to hypertension. He was a victim of one of the same disparities he sought to eliminate. There is not a more ironic reminder that the future of a race does depend on the conservation of its health. How would Washington have further impacted the future of his race had he conserved his own health?
There is so much we can learn from this. First, given their mission, higher education institutions can and should play a role in addressing health disparities that result in a a significant negative economic cost to society. Second, Washington’s NNHW provided an early model for using health education that is culturally competent to reduce health disparities. Third, celebrating Black history and looking back should be done in the hopes of learning from the past and not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk.
Black History Month is not only about celebrating the past, but also about learning the lessons of the past to improve the future. Celebrating the legacy of Washington and NNHW means celebrating Black health stories as each of us individually – students, staff and faculty of higher education institutions – learn and do what is necessary to “conserve our health.”