"There Wasn't a Lot of Comforts in Those Days"

African Americans, Public Health, and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

At the onset of the 20th century, African-American death rates were two to three times higher than Whites for a number of diseases, including tuberculosis, pneumonia and diarrheal disease. Racism and legalized segregation limited Black’s access to health care providers and facilities. Some White physicians held the belief that African Americans were biologically inferior to Whites. Black physicians contended that African-American health disparities reflected socioeconomic inequalities, including poor sanitation.

During the 1918 influenza epidemic, however, African Americans were less susceptible than White Americans to the disease, even though it did overwhelm their segregated medical and public health resources.

The authors of this article cite published accounts from Black newspapers of the time—from Chicago and Cleveland to Philadelphia and Baltimore—that chronicle the crisis’ effect on African Americans and their health care providers’ responses. The belief was widespread that American Americans had lower morbidity and mortality rates from the pandemic. Segregation, as a de facto quarantine, may have actually limited the exposure of Blacks to the disease.

The influenza epidemic led to no major changes in opportunities for Black health professionals, nor did it overturn racist theories about African-American biological inferiority or Black people as disease threats.

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