19: This Month in Black History – “I’ll Go to Jail”: Detroit’s Richard Henry and GOAL

Written by Dr. James Lewis, Professor of History (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

“OK, you would have to have been living under a rock to not have heard of the current political discourse regarding banning American History books from K-12 schools – and burning them! The fight for representation and true American history teaching, however, is not new and has roots in Michigan!”

R. Stevens-Truss

On Tuesday, November 27, 1962, Richard Henry, the president of Detroit’s Group On Advanced Leadership (GOAL) and the father of an eighth grader at Durfee Junior High, announced: “I’ll go to jail before I allow my son to return to a history class in which these objectionable text books are being used.” His strong stance was an emotional climax in an ongoing battle between GOAL and the Detroit School Board over the coverage–and, more frequently, simply the omission–of Black people and Black history from the books required in the city’s primary and secondary school classes. GOAL had raised this issue in the spring, as part of a larger challenge to the school board to address discrimination against Black students in terms of access to vocational training programs and guidance counselling and Black adults in terms of hiring. The school board’s initial response about the textbooks was that better books were not being adopted simply because they did not exist.

In large measure, that assessment was correct. It was not that historians did not know better. Even by the early 1960s, academic historians were already revising and overturning old myths about slavery, Reconstruction, and Black life, often following the lead of Black scholars such as W. E. B. DuBois, Carter Woodson, and John Hope Franklin. But that work had made little impact on primary and secondary school history texts. These texts continued to present slavery as benign and enslaved people as happy with their lot in life (which was often described as easier than that of the northern working class) and Black empowerment in the Reconstruction Era South as misguided and disastrous. The explanation for the disconnect, not only between what happened and what the textbooks said had happened, but even between what scholars were saying had happened and what made it into textbooks arose from the confluence of the profit seeking of textbook publishers and the white supremacism of Southern adoption boards. Textbook publishers wanted to be able to sell their products nationally, pitching the same product to as many potential adopters as possible. The white Southerners who made adoption decisions, whether on the state or the district level, insisted on a version of U.S. history that left little room for Blacks at all and slotted them into acceptable accounts of slavery and Reconstruction when they had to be included. Outside of the South, states and districts had merely chosen from among the available options.

There had been Black activism around school textbooks long before GOAL took up the issue in 1962, by Black educators and organizations and in northern cities with large Black populations (including Detroit). But the battle gained new energy in the context of the dynamism of the early ’60s Civil Rights Movement. In response to the Detroit school board’s insistence that there were no better options, GOAL had called on it to issue an ultimatum to publishers that it would stop adopting their textbooks unless “the races [were] treated with equal respect and distinction.” After two months with little movement on the issue, GOAL had prepared a draft ultimatum for the school board’s use in June 1962.

At a meeting with GOAL in July, the superintendent of schools had promised that textbooks “more suited to the urban community” would be used in the fall. But, when Richard Henry’s son Frederick attended his first day of school that September, the book for his history class, Our United States: A Bulwark of Freedom, was worse than most (it was also in use in Birmingham, Alabama). In the words of an NAACP review, “The image of the Negro projected by the authors is that of a dependent, servile creature, who, with the exception of his ability to sing and make music, has contributed only minimally to the development of his country and is incapable of functioning as a responsible person.” Richard Henry told his son to stay home from school in protest. And, while Frederick returned to Durfee soon, his father kept him out of his history class. On November 23, the superintendent of schools rejected a demand, made jointly by GOAL and the NAACP, that the book be withdrawn from use in the school system—a decision that was reported even in the New York Times. This refusal prompted Richard Henry’s announcement that he would go to jail before letting Frederick return to the class, as well as a threat to sue to prevent the use of the book. After a GOAL meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church a few days later, Henry informed a reporter for the Michigan Chronicle–one of the city’s Black-owned newspapers–that GOAL was “preparing to mobilize 10,000 Negroes to protest the use of [that] text.”

Within a week, the Chronicle would announce “Ultimate Victory Predicted” in the battle over Our United States as the state curriculum committee made clear the need for better options. Within four months, the school board had commissioned a supplement, “The Struggle for Freedom and Rights,” that it quickly sent out to middle schools to use in conjunction with the problematic book. In May 1963, the Chronicle described this step as “an initial victory,” noting that “the problem of more representative textbooks is far from being completely solved in” Detroit. That November, the school board officially dropped Our United States from its approved list and began looking for a replacement. By the beginning of the new school year in September 1964, it had selected a heavily revised version of Our United States that had overhauled its coverage of Blacks with the help of an academic historian and material drawn from “The Struggle for Freedom and Rights.”

Victory in Detroit, when combined with the release of some highly critical assessments of the available textbooks, sparked increased activism around the presentation of Blacks in primary and secondary school history textbooks in other northern cities (including New York City), in California, and, within a couple of years, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The furor in Detroit led most of the textbook publishers to launch internal reviews of their products and policies that included meetings with civil rights groups and educators. Other cities followed Detroit in setting guidelines for textbook approval that called for racial diversity and honesty. The new textbooks, perhaps not surprisingly, produced a backlash, not only from adoption committees in Southern states, but also in places with a large population of conservative whites, such as California.

What the efforts of textbook authors and publishers to offer a more inclusive and more honest representation of the American past revealed was the complexity of incorporating Blacks into that past on anything beyond the superficial level of “great contributors,” whether the mathematician Benjamin Banneker or the agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver. Revisions designed to give Blacks their full place in the American past could only challenge the simplistic, nationalistic myths that served to hold that past—and the idea of Americans as a single people—together. These basic myths were encapsulated in such phrases as: “a bulwark of freedom” (the subtitle of Our United States) or “land of opportunity” or “a nation of immigrants” (which implies a voluntarism that was entirely absent from the experience of enslaved Africans). None of them could easily accommodate the Black experience—many required denying its most important features.

Richard Henry (later Imari Obadele), GOAL, and other Black Detroiters helped to launch real changes in what most American children now see in their textbooks. But the difficulty of fully incorporating Black history into the feel-good national story that many Americans expect (and demand) remains and has shaped battles over everything from multiculturalism in the 1990s to the 1619 Project in recent years.

For further reading on this issue, see: Joseph Moreau, Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present (2003), esp. chapter 7; and Hillel Black, The American Schoolbook (1967).

Questions?

Questions about this story, please contact Dr. James Lewis (James.Lewis@kzoo.edu). Questions about this series or if interested in authoring one, please contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

19: This Month in Black History – Milestones in Environmental Justice, Dr. Robert Bullard

Dr. Robert Bullard

Written by Dr. Binney Girdler, Professor of Biology & Director of Environmental Studies

Photos: See photos of Dr. Robert Bullard

This month, we celebrate Dr. Robert Bullard, often called the “father of environmental justice,” who in October of 1990 published Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, a path-breaking book with a national focus on environmental injustice in the United States. Dr. Bullard was also a key organizer of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October 1991, which resulted in the adoption of 17 Principles of Environmental Justice as a comprehensive platform for a national and international movement of all peoples.

Robert Bullard was born in 1946 in the small town of Elba, Alabama, where he attended segregated schools. He received his B.S. in Government from Alabama A&M University. After serving in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam war, he pursued his M.A. in Sociology from Atlanta University and his Ph.D. in Sociology from Iowa State University. He has held faculty and director positions at Clark Atlanta University, where he founded the Environmental Justice Resource Center, University of Tennessee, the University of California – both Riverside and Berkeley, and Texas Southern University, where he is now Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

Robert Bullard began his efforts to catalog environmental injustice as an expert witness in a Houston, Texas class action lawsuit that attempted to block construction of a landfill proposed to be built within two miles of six schools, one within 1500 feet of the proposed dump. Recruited by his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, the young sociology professor Bullard recruited students in his sociology methods class, and together they conducted a painstaking study of landfills in Houston. At that time, in 1979, “[t]here was no Google, there was no GIS mapping,” Bullard says in a recent interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The team eventually reported that all five city-owned landfills were sited in Black neighborhoods, as were 80 percent of city-owned garbage incinerators, and 75 percent of privately-owned landfills, even though only 25 percent of Houston’s entire population was Black. That lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., did not succeed in stopping the landfill, because it was difficult to prove intent. But Bullard was “hooked,” as he said in a 2006 interview: “I started connecting the dots in terms of housing, residential patterns, patterns of land use, where highways go, where transportation routes go, and how economic-development decisions are made. It was very clear that people who were making decisions — county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils — were not the same people who were “hosting” these facilities in their communities” (Grist, Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice)

Bullard expanded his study of environmental injustice to a nationwide scope in his landmark book Dumping in Dixie, published this month in 1990. He cataloged the stories of five Black communities across the American South where ordinary people spoke up, organized, resisted, protested, and fought for their right to live free from contamination and other environmental harms. Dr. Bullard has gone on to publish dozens of peer-reviewed articles and 17 more books on topics ranging from the racist roots of the unequal toll of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to city planning, health equity, food security, transportation apartheid, and climate justice.

Although Bullard has had a successful career in academia, it is his work within marginalized communities that has been most impactful. Bullard related in a 1999 interview: “What we’ve tried to do over the last twenty years is educate and assist groups in organizing and mobilizing, empowering themselves to take charge of their lives, their community and their surroundings. … For the most part, a lot of the small grassroots groups operate from a bottom-up model. They don’t have boards of directors and large budgets and large staffs but they do operate with the idea that everyone has a role and we are all equal in this together” (Earth First! Journal, Environmental Justice: An Interview with Robert Bullard).

In addition to his deep engagement in communities facing environmental harms, Dr. Bullard has continued to serve as expert witness in court cases across the nation, and has served on several national advisory panels. This month in 1991, the Principles of Environmental Justice were adopted at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, co-organized by Dr. Bullard and held in Washington, DC. The EJ Summit, attended by well over 1,000 participants, was foundational in the Environmental Justice Movement. Delegates came from all fifty states including Alaska and Hawaii, and from Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria, and the Marshall Islands. The seventeen principles were developed as a guide for organizing, networking, and relating to each other as people of color, non-governmental organizations, and governments. Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Bullard to the inaugural National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee to the EPA, which was pivotal to Clinton signing the landmark Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” Dr. Bullard continues this important work at the intersection of civil rights and environmental justice today as a member of President Joe Biden’s White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which now advises the entire administration, from the U.S. Department of Energy to Health and Human Services.

Bullard’s list of honors and awards is long and wide-ranging, so we’ll highlight just the last few years. In 2020, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) honored Dr. Bullard with its Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award, the UN’s highest environmental honor. Most recently, Dr. Robert Bullard was among the 2022 cohort of scholars inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. In an interview at Texas Southern University, Bullard reacted: “It is truly an honor to be elected to such a prestigious body and to have the American Academy of Arts and Sciences recognize and lift up our justice and equity work,” he said. “I accept the honor on behalf of the struggles in frontline and fence-line communities where there is still much work to be done to secure environmental and climate justice for all” (Texas Southern University, TSU’s “Father of Environmental Justice” selected to join American Academy of Arts & Sciences)

Questions?

Questions about this story, please contact Dr. Binney Girdler (Binney.Girdler@kzoo.edu). Questions about this series or if interested in authoring one, please contact Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss (Regina.Stevens-Truss@kzoo.edu)

19: This Month in Black History – The State of Education of Black Folks in the USA

Black student and woman in tech working on her laptop.

The State of Education
of Black Folks
in the USA

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Director of the HHMI IE Grant

As we begin our school year and because of the landscape of higher education in the USA, I thought that a ‘feel good’ story was in line, albeit, I will add some caution to this.

The U.S. is doing better (said out of one side of my mouth) when it comes to educating the Black population. According to the 2020 US Census report “88% of Blacks have a high school diploma.” In that report they also state that ~90% of the U.S. population have graduated high school, putting the Black community in almost parity with the rest of the Nation. As a point of comparison, in 1940, only 7% of Blacks completed high school when the National average was 24%. Many credit this increase to the Compulsory Education Laws enacted by states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to enact a compulsory education law in 1852. In a 2012 report that examined whether schooling laws matter, it was found that the “introduction of compulsory attendance laws had positive and statistically significant effects on schooling in states that passed laws after 1880.” This means that overtime then, the educational gap between Black students and the National average had closed to about 2%, as measured in 2019; at least at the high school level.

The college degree gap has also closed, but nowhere as tightly; in 2019, the gap between Blacks and the National average was 26% for college degree attainment. It is important to note that the vast majority of college degrees attained by Blacks before 1967 in the U.S. were from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). HBCUs were the only game in town in educating Blacks prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To be clear, Blacks were “allowed” to attend White universities in northern states before the abolition of slavery. However, because of institutionalized racism and discrimination at these institutions, as well as the poor college preparation that Black students were afforded, their education was hampered. HBCUs were the predominant means of African American post-secondary education for about 100 years (from right after the Civil War to the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s). Before the establishment of the first HBCU in a southern state (Atlanta University – now Clark Atlanta University on September 19, 1865), there were four HBCUs established in northern states: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837, University of the District of Columbia in 1851 (then known as Miner School for Colored Girls), Lincoln University in 1854, and Wilberforce University in 1856. Atlanta University (Clark Atlanta University) was one of the first graduate institutions in the Nation to award degrees to African Americans, and the first to award bachelor’s degrees to African Americans in the south. According to Wikipedia, “HBCUs have a rich legacy of matriculating many leaders in the fields of business (Spike Lee, film director and producer – Morehouse), law (Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court JusticeLincoln and Howard; featured in our 19 story in July 2020), science (Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician – attended West Virginia State College, now West Virginia State), education (Booker T. Washington, educator, orator, and advisor – Hampton), military service (The Tuskegee Airmen were educated at Tuskegee University), entertainment (Oprah Winfrey, talk show host and media mogul – Tenn State), art (Erykah Badu singer, entrepreneur, and actress – Grambling State), and sports (Jerry Rice, considered the greatest NFL wide receiver of all-time – Mississippi Valley State).”

Despite their excellent track record of educating Blacks, HBCUs have struggled to stay open. Once predominantly white institutions committed to educating Black students and opened their doors during the Civil Rights Era, and because of the government’s affirmative action goals, enrollment at HBCUs began to drop. While the number of Black students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities increased by ~377% from 1966 to 1976, only 18% were enrolled in HBCUs; which dropped to only 9% in 2010. The reduced number of students attending HBCUs has also led to a decrease in the number of these institutions (from 121 in 1930 to 101 in 2019).

A possible shiny light for HBCUs – while in 2020 (the year when Black Lives Matter issues was heightened) the enrollment of Black and White students attending secondary institutions declined, however, some HBCUs experienced a surge in enrollment – Howard University, for example, increased 15 percent from 2019 to 2021. This could be a sign that Blacks are finding needed support at these institutions. Historically, HBCUs have been a pillar in the lives of many successful Blacks, offering an education that is unmatched by many of the Nation’s other institutions. For non-HBCU institutions to truly ensure access to students of color, these institutions (like K) have a duty to make sure that these students are supported in all the ways!

19: This Month in Black History – Juneteenth Culinary Traditions

by Drs. Fari Nzinga and Regina Stevens-Truss

Happy Juneteenth everyone! Today, everyone in the United States can enjoy a federally-recognized holiday in honor of Juneteenth, and many may have heard the story of its roots at least once – on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Africans in Texas were finally informed that they could claim their freedom. Imagine the joy and celebration, and the birth of Juneteenth (celebrated since 1865 by many Black people – you can re-read this Juneteenth story). By now then, you may know about the why behind the holiday, so this final story of the 2021-22 school year will focus on some of the how to celebrate Juneteenth – the culinary traditions.

As in most cultures around the world, Black people typically celebrate with and gather around food. Red-colored foods and drinks are of primary significance to the culture. Culinary historian and chef, Michael Twitty, discusses in Oprah Daily (The Traditional Foods of Juneteenth Carry a Rich History, Dating Back Centuries), “Texas was at the end of the world to the Antebellum South. There were a lot of enslaved Africans who were coming to Texas from the continent and through the Caribbean. The color red is highly associated with the cultures that would’ve come through the later years of the trade, which would have been Yoruba and Kongo.” Twitty also writes in his blog, Afroculinaria, “enslavement narratives from Texas recall an African ancestor being lured using red flannel cloth, and many of the charms and power objects used to manipulate invisible forces required a red handkerchief” (Juneteenth, A Culinary History Part 1).

The places where many newly-imported African laborers passed through, cultural and culinary traditions were carried along and continue to manifest. For example, Dr. Fred Opie, makes the connection that West African peoples like the Asante, Yoruba and Kongo among others, marked special occasions with the offering of sacrifices, especially the red blood of white birds and goats.

Soul Food Scholar Adrian E. Miller has further traced red drinks served at Juneteenth celebrations to the fruits of two native West African plants: the kola nut and the hibiscus flower. The kola nut, typically white or red, was and still is served to guests throughout West and Central Africa as a snack to chew, used as a water purifier, or steeped for tea. The flowers of the hibiscus, too, are often stewed to make a reddish-purple, tartly-sweet tea called sorrel or bissap.

A traditional Juneteenth spread consists of barbeque and red foods: tables lined with bbq chicken, hot links, watermelon, hibiscus tea, and, more recently, strawberry soda and red velvet cake. In addition to the cultural and spiritual meanings behind the red-colored foods, the color red symbolizes not only the bloodshed of enslaved people who never tasted freedom, but the resilience of all Black people in the face of continued oppression. Sides like cabbage, collard, turnip or mustard greens, and black-eyed peas are typically served as well. Often called prosperity dishes and eaten during the new year, black-eyed peas are said to bring luck and greens and cabbage, of course, money and abundance.

However you choose to celebrate Juneteenth, the point is to place one’s experience within a larger, historical context; to connect with family and cultural traditions, and to realize one’s own definition of freedom. This June, and in the many to come, take a moment to reflect and honor those who have demonstrated resistance to oppression (check out the Freedom Lifted “6 Ways to Resist” exercise by Mia Henry).

As Adrian Miller so eloquently puts it: “I think about all of those Emancipation celebrations, church suppers, family reunions and other occasions when people got together to celebrate, renew family ties and friendships, and affirm their humanity.” Chew on that.

Again this year, these monthly Black History stories have been brought to you by the ACSJL and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence team, and are aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture as we continue to work towards being an anti-racist Institution. The number 19 marks multiple important dates in the lives of Blacks in the USA – 1619 being the year in which the first set of African slaves were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19, 1865, marking the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US.

We need to know our history, we need to teach our history, we need to remember our history.

Would you like to contribute a story?

Anyone can contribute a 19 story. Contact Regina Stevens-Truss at Regina.Stevens-Rruss@kzoo.edu for information on how to get started!

19: This Month in Black History – Asian & African American Solidarity

Protest sign reading "Together and Stronger."

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

In honor of Asian American heritage month (May 1-31st), we are going to look at some of the moments where Asian American and African American histories connect and overlap.

The first Asian immigrants arrived in the 19th century. They were Filipino sailors who came to the shores of the so-called “New World” aboard Spanish ships in the 16th century. Some of these Filipino sailors survived pirates and shipwrecks to settle in parts of colonial Mexico and Louisiana, and, while there, some joined maroon societies comprised of Indigenous people, Africans and European deserters.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese men travelled across the globe to toil on large industrial plantations in the British West Indies, Hawaii, and the U.S. Deep South as indentured laborers. Pejoratively called “coolies,” countless men and many women were taken advantage of and lured with promises of economic prosperity by contractors and agents, only to work over ten hours a day, six days a week, for five or more years before gaining their freedom. During this time Asian Americans were being forced into the bottom of the white supremacist racial hierarchy, working closely with Africans both enslaved and free; and upon emancipation, Asian mobility and labor power were weaponized against newly emancipated Africans in order to keep wages low and profits high. While racial animus was sewn to ensure competition, there were also new opportunities to cultivate Afro-Asian relationships and build political alliances.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that Asian immigrants would begin to migrate in their greatest numbers to the U.S. When gold was “discovered” by white settlers in California in 1848, word quickly got out, spawning the California Gold Rush (and providing the reference for the present-day NFL team the San Francisco ‘49ers). The Gold Rush sped up the process of colonization, kept up the momentum of U.S. expansionism and, later, so-called Manifest Destiny, attracting entrepreneurs and cut-throat capitalists alike.

At the same time, many Chinese laborers migrated by the thousands to California. While many had come in hopes of striking rich, the majority found work laying track for the Pacific/Transcontinental Railroad between 1863 – 1869. Comprising the vast majority of railroad workers on the Western routes, Chinese immigrants were paid to physically clear Indigenous homelands in order to connect the distant colony of California to industrial centers in the East Coast and Midwest, thereby consolidating the U.S. continental empire. As railroad towns began to proliferate, Chinese merchants followed the construction boom. Before, during and after the transcontinental railroad’s construction thousands of enslaved and then freedmen also worked on the railroads grading lines, building bridges, and blasting tunnels. Often paid the least to do the most undesirable jobs, both Black and Asian workers survived brutal conditions of economic exploitation and racial violence.

In the wake of the devastation of the Civil War, as the nation scrambled to rebuild, the United States and China negotiated the Treaty of Trade, Consuls, and Emigration, known as the Burlingame Treaty in 1868, which established a reciprocal relationship for the movement of people and goods between the two countries. But that didn’t stop white settlers from discriminating against Asian immigrants, seizing their property, and perpetrating cowardly acts of violence and intimidation. In his speech “Our Composite Nation,” delivered in Boston in 1869, powerful orator and statesman, Frederick Douglass, condemned anti-Asian racism:

Men differ widely as to the magnitude of this potential Chinese immigration. The fact that by the late treaty with China, we bind ourselves to receive immigrants from that country only as the subjects of the Emperor, and by the construction, at least, are bound not to [naturalize] them, and the further fact that Chinamen themselves have a superstitious devotion to their country and an aversion to permanent location in any other, contracting even to have their bones carried back, should they die abroad, and from the fact that many have returned to China, and the still more stubborn [fact] that resistance to their coming has increased rather than diminished, it is inferred that we shall never have a large Chinese population in America. This however is not my opinion.

[…] Already has the matter taken this shape in California and on the Pacific Coast generally. Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinamen. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempt and vulgar jest. Already are they the constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.

[…] I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

Frederick Douglass

A short-lived treaty, it didn’t last long before white settlers began to discriminate against and harass Asian immigrants, chasing them out of the West Coast through the twin prongs of violence and legislation. By 1882, not even twenty years later, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, placing the first restrictions on immigration in U.S. history. The law specifically sought to eliminate Chinese immigration.

At a time when white supremacist policies, laws and ideologies are precipitating near-constant racial violence against Black and Asian communities, it is important to learn from those moments in history when these groups labored together and (sometimes) stood in solidarity.

Get Involved and Support

To learn more about how you might get involved in supporting contemporary solidarity and coalition-building work, check out The Cross Cultural Solidarity History Project’s resource on Black/Asian solidarity.

And just for fun and maybe to occupy the summer months, here are some titles to peruse:

  • Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. 2016.
  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1998.
  • Yun, Lisa. The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba. 2008.

19: This Month in Black History – Medical Injustices in the History of Black Americans

Medical Injustices in the History of Black Americans

Written by Dr. Fari Nzinga and Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss


Happy Black History Month has been said in the USA since 1970. During the month of February, we celebrate the achievements of Black people and honor historical pioneers. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, several institutions have honored Black Pioneers in Medicine during February Black History Month Celebrations (see these Black medical pioneers). In 2022 Kalamazoo College has joined in these celebrations (ARRK event on Feb 15, Henrietta Lacks event on Feb 17, and this Feb 19 Black History story).

Throughout American history however, “Black people have endured a medical system that has been simultaneously exploitative and dismissive. And the damaging implicit and explicit biases present in our medical system do not suddenly vanish because we are in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, the pandemic has made them impossible to ignore” (referenced from Vox article, how medical bias against black people is shaping Covid-19 treatment and care).

To understand why it is that during a global pandemic so many Black Americans are distrustful of the medical authorities and are hesitant to get vaccinated, one needs to look back at history.

The next two stories adapted from the Annals of American Medical History are but two examples of medical malpractice towards Black people that may help shed light on some of the roots of a bigger problem.

Many of us may have heard of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (discussed later in this piece) but we may not have heard the story of Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy before.

1840s – Montgomery, Alabama

Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, considered the Mothers of Modern Gynecology according to Women & the American Story, were three enslaved women who lived and worked on different plantations near Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s (referenced from Life Story: Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy-The Mothers of Modern Gynecology). After giving birth, these three women developed a painful medical condition that caused them to lose control of their bladders and bowels. At that time, enslaved women with this condition were separated from other slave workers as there was no treatment for the condition. These women’s frustrated slave owners wanted a cure, so that the women would be able to resume their hard labor to earn them money. Dr. J. Marion Sims caught the interest of these women’s slave owners, as he and others in the 1800s were very interested in medical advancement and experimentation. Dr. Sims, while attempting to treat and cure Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, leased them for the duration of their treatment, ensuring his complete control over their bodies. Between medical procedures and experiments, the women worked for the Sims family, and for 5 years, Dr. Sims would operate on Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and other women in rooms crowded with doctors who had traveled for miles to observe the details of his procedures. These women were naked and in chains while on the operating table. Dr. Sims did not use anesthesia in his many procedures, partly because doctors feared the potentially fatal side-effects of anesthesia, and partly because it was commonly believed that Black women did not experience pain the same way white women did (this belief, BTW, still makes its way into medical practices today). Many of his medical experiments ended up being failures, causing his white male assistants to quit. Undeterred, Dr. Sims trained Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy to be his assistants. In time, they became skilled medical practitioners in their own right, caring for each other and others during their recoveries. Finally, after enduring over 30 painful and humiliating surgeries, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy were returned to their enslavers to continue to toil on their plantations. The exploitation of Black women did not end with the Civil War, nor with emancipation. With the lens of 2022, one could imagine that this story could only happen during slavery…

Almost 100 years later, 1930s – Tuskegee, Alabama

In 1932 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Black men in Macon County were targeted for research. The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” (now referred to as the “USPHS Syphilis Study at Tuskegee”) was a study conducted for a little over 40 years (1932-1972) by the United States Public Health Service (see Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Ted Talk, Ugly History: The U.S. Syphilis Experiment by Susan M. Reverby). The study initially involved 600 Black men – 399 who had syphilis and 201 who did not have the disease. Researchers told the men that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. During their “treatment” and “free medical exams” sessions the men were provided free meals as an incentive, but they were subjected to painful procedures. Researchers wanted to understand the course of the disease (which ends in death and causes severe organ damage along the way), as well as whether the disease manifested differently in Blacks and Whites. During the course of the 40 years, many of the 600 subjects died and they were provided and promised burial insurance. Although treatment was the promise, the reality was that the men received no treatment at all. And even after penicillin was discovered as a safe and reliable cure for syphilis in 1943, the majority of the Tuskegee patients did not receive it – in fact, they were banned from receiving this treatment as a way to continue the study.

On July 25, 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller broke news about the study (see article, Black men untreated in Tuskegee Syphilis Study) that severely damaged public trust in the American medical establishment. As a result, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs appointed an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel to review the study. The advisory panel concluded that the study was “ethically unjustified and advised stopping the study.” A month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced the end of the study (see the Memorandum Terminating the Tuskegee Syphilis Study). The following year, in March 1973, the panel also advised the Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) (now known as the Department of Health and Human Services) to instruct the USPHS to provide all necessary medical care for the survivors of the study. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services. At the same time, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families, resulting in a $10 million, out-of-court settlement in 1974. In 1975, participants’ wives, widows and children were added to the program. In 1995, the program was expanded to include health, as well as medical, benefits. The last study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. Participants’ children (10 as of 2021) continue to receive medical and health benefits and continue to fight for justice.

Almost 90 years after the start of the Tuskegee Study and 49 years (1973) after these men and their families were provided medical benefits, many Black Americans have poorer health outcomes than their White counterparts in part due to racist thinking and policies that prevail in our society. Despite major advances in obstetrics and gynecology, Black women still suffer higher rates of maternal mortality in the United States. Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for a myriad of conditions including broken bones and cancer, and Black children receive less pain medication than white children for conditions such as appendicitis – still today, some medical practitioners inaccurately believe that Black people experience less pain than other human beings. It’s no wonder that Black people distrust “science” and the medical establishment!

Honoring Black Medical Pioneers

Let’s continue to honor medical pioneers, but most importantly
let us work on equalizing how every member of society is treated.

Continue to Celebrate Black History Month…

Check out these further readings:

  • HOBERMAN, JOHN. “Why Bioethics Has a Race Problem.” The Hastings Center Report, vol. 46, no. 2, [The Hastings Center, Wiley], 2016, pp. 12–18, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44159426.
  • Sirleaf, Matiangai. “DISPOSABLE LIVES: COVID-19, VACCINES, AND THE UPRISING.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 121, no. 5, Columbia Law Review Association, Inc., 2021, pp. 71–94, https://www.jstor.org/stable/27033038.

Would you like to contribute a story?

Anyone can contribute a 19 story. Contact Regina Stevens-Truss at Regina.Stevens-Rruss@kzoo.edu for information on how to get started!

19: This Month in Black History – Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History

By Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Many people in the United States, in some way, participate in celebrating Black History Month. How many people, however, know the catalyst of this ritual? This February’s post is in honor of the man who founded what was first Black History Week, which then became Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950).

Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, to formerly enslaved African Americans, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. As a child, like many of his time, he worked as a sharecropper, a coal miner and various other jobs to help support his large family. Because of a lack of opportunity, he entered high school late, but according to all of his teachers, he was so bright that he graduated in only two years. He then attended Berea College in Kentucky, and while there, taught at Winona, Fayette County, WV in a school established by Black coal miners for their children. (Yes, there were and still are Black coal miners). Woodson continued his education at the University of Chicago, where in 1908 he earned two bachelor’s degrees as well as a Master’s degree in European History. Woodson also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1912 earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in history. Woodson was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University; Dr. W. E. B. DuBois was the first to achieve this in 1907.

In the summer of 1915 thousands of African-Americans traveled to Chicago from around the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation. This major celebration showcasing African-Americans’ progress and achievements after the end of enslavement was held at the Chicago Coliseum. According to records, at one point, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. This event spurred Woodson to begin the work towards honoring Black History. Inspired by the three-week celebration, before he left Chicago he decided to form an organization to promote the academic study of Black life and history. On September 9, 1915, Woodson met with other Black intellectuals at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). One year later the organization established the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson, though, understood that if they were going to promote and popularize the history of African-Americans that they needed greater impact beyond the journal. He urged Black civic organizations to promote the journal and the achievements that researchers were uncovering. As a graduate member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he urged his brothers to take up the work, and in February of 1924, they created the Negro History and Literature Week.

From the beginning, Woodson found a huge response to his call. Negro History and Literature Week appeared across the country in Black schools, churches and popular spaces. The 1920s, after all, was the decade of Marcus Garvey’s Black Pride Parades, the Harlem Renaissance, and the New Negro, a name given to the Post-War I generation because of its rising racial pride and consciousness. Urbanization and industrialization had brought over a million African Americans from the rural South into big cities of the nation, which became centers of expanding literacy and confidence. The expanding Black working and middle classes became participants in and consumers of Black literature and culture. Black history clubs sprang up and teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils. Even some progressive whites endorsed the efforts.

It is interesting to note that Woodson’s first inspiration for the study of Black History was actually based on his experience in the Philippines. How you might ask did Woodson get to the Philipines? The US government, in the aftermath of the Spanish American War, decided to use some African-Americans in their colonial territories. Woodson, because of his accomplishments, was sent to the archipelego in 1903 to work as an education superintendent. He quickly became concerned that the learning materials he had been given focused on European and White American history and he worried that this would have a negative effect on the confidence and sense of self of the Filipino people. After this experience he returned to the US determined to change the experiences for African-Americans. In fact, although he is the author of over a dozen books, his most well-known work is The Mis-education of the Negro . This text is still in publication today and is a grounding text for how the silences and erasures of Black History can have a negative effect on Black people.

Carter G. Woodson died in 1950 but his legacy lives on. Honored as the Father of Black History, the organization and journal that he founded continue to thrive and are known today as The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (which still conducts an annual conference) and the Journal of African-American History. And oh yes, of course, we now celebrate Black History Month during the month of February!

Let’s celebrate Black history today and every day!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History