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MPH Program in Health Services

Black History Month

Welcome to Black History Month with the Department of Health Services at the University of Washington School of Public Health. During Black History Month, which runs from February 1-28, we will be recognizing influential African American leaders in public health, past and present. Each day, we will share a profile authored by Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director Dr. Clarence Spigner, whose teaching and research interests include the health of disadvantage populations, race and ethnic relations, and the intersections of popular culture's influence.

From the evils of slavery to the inequities of the Jim Crow era which extend into the modern day, African Americans have struggled against increased risks and poorer outcomes for myriad health conditions, including obesity, stroke, and cancer. Yet despite being historically excluded from equal access to opportunities in education and health care, African Americans throughout history have created their own spaces for brilliant breakthroughs in every major discipline of public health. From historical figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver and Harriet Tubman, to contemporaries such as Deborah Prothow-Stith, Barack Obama, and the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, African Americans are fighting back against health disparities, and leading the charge to promote health and well-being for all Americans.

By sharing their stories, we hope to honor these individuals for their contributions to the health and well-being of American society, as well as highlight the strength and vibrancy of the African American community in the face of generations of systemic inequality and racism.


Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) & Harriet Tubman (1820-1913)

African American women have always played a key, if not dominant, role in the history and well-being of African Americans. The legacy of African American women in public health traces its roots to these formidable women.   read more...

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

Escaped African American slave and mesmerizing orator, Frederick Douglass was a brilliant and fiery abolitionist who spoke and wrote about the intersectionality of social, political and economic determinants of slavery and health. Douglass’ articulation about the horrors of African American slavery captured “man’s inhumanity to man” in his passionate and intense use of the English language.   read more...

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)

Educator and presidential advisor Booker Taliaferro Washington would be seen as a Conservative or a Republican today. Most African Americans of his time did describe themselves as Republican, after the party of the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the Great Emancipator. “Pragmatist” might have been a more appropriate label.   read more...

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

Born into slavery in Missouri in the 1860s (his exact birthday is unknown), George Washington Carver was an African American agricultural scientist, researcher, and inventor, and a role model for the dogged pursuit of education in spite of overwhelming odds.   read more...

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was an African American historian and sociologist, and the first African American to graduate with a doctoral degree from Harvard in 1895. Pan-Africanist, civil-rights and human rights activist, Du Bois integrated public health into his ethnographic research, as evident in such monumental works as The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and his essays in The Souls of Black Folks (1903).   read more...

Charles R. Drew (1904-1950)

Charles R. Drew was an African American physician, surgeon and researcher. He is perhaps best known for his research on blood, blood transfusions, and blood banking. As Director of the Red Cross Blood Bank, Drew argued vigorously against the needless separation of blood by donor race.   read more...

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Bayard Rustin is the civil rights activist who taught nonviolent civil disobedience tactics to Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) and to the Civil Rights Movement followers. Rustin traveled to India in 1948 to learn techniques from Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Rustin’s sexual orientation and socialist ideology has made him obscured from popular memory, yet he was far more instrumental and significant as a civil rights leader than history has given him credit for being.   read more...

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

Remarkable civil rights activist, feminist, and community organizer Fannie Lou Hamer was the vanguard for Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement. Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and helped spur the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act, by helping to organize Freedom Summer in 1964.   read more...

Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman whose immortal cancer cells were removed without her permission by researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School. Lacks’ cells became the source of the famous HeLa cell line, which led to massive breakthroughs in biomedical research, including development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and a deepened understanding of cancer and HIV/AIDS.   read more...

James A. Baldwin (1924-1987)

James Baldwin was an African American novelist, social activist, and critic. Baldwin is unique in his capacity for expressing the experience of being Black in a White-controlled world, which he communicates in such powerful works as If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and The Fire Next Time (1963).   read more...

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) & Malcolm X (1925-1965)

The Christian Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Muslim minister Malcolm X were religious and civil rights leaders who shared the goals of eliminating racism and promoting justice and freedom for African Americans. King followed the nonviolent and civil disobedience tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, whereas Malcolm X took a more direct, militant approach.   read more...

David Satcher (1941 - )

David Satcher was the 16th Surgeon General of the United States under the 1993-2001 presidential administration of Bill Clinton. Satcher has consistently addressed issues of racial and ethnic disparities in health in his wide-ranging work, from HIV treatment, to developing effective parenting skills, to sexual health and stigmatization, to health issues related to social inclusion and exclusion.   read more...

Sherman A. James (1944 - )

African American epidemiologist and health researcher Sherman James is known for his concept “John Henryism,” which attributes the premature deaths of African Americans to prolonged exposure to the stresses of discrimination and racism.   read more...

Maxine Hayes (1946 - )

Maxine Hayes, MD, MPH, FAAP is a nationally-recognized maternal and child health expert, and the former State Health Officer for the Washington State Department of Health. As the State’s top public health officer for 16 years, Hayes advised the governor, the secretary of health, the medical communities, and local health departments about matters relevant to the health of the public.   read more...

Harriet Washington (1951 - )

Harriet Washington is an African American writer and author of the award-winning book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (2006). Washington’s historical chronology about medical experimentation on African Americans would be a dystopian novel if it were not true.   read more...

Deborah Prothrow-Stith (1954 - )

Deborah Prothrow-Stith is an African American physician, innovator, and Dean of the Charles R. Drew University College of Medicine in Los Angeles, California. Prothrow-Stith pioneered the view that interpersonal violence should be treated as a public health issue.   read more...

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey (1954 - )

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA was the first woman and first African American to head the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which she did as President and CEO from 2003-2017. Forbes magazine has named Lavizzo-Mourey one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.   read more...

Gwen Ifill (1955-2016)

Journalist, TV newscaster, and author Gwen Ifill was the first African American woman to host a national news program, Washington Week in Review on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Ifill coined the term “missing white woman syndrome,” and she was awarded the Peabody Award.   read more...

Joseph L. Graves Jr. (1955 - )

Presently the Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Biological Sciences in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nano-engineering at North Carolina A&T State University and UNC Greensboro, Joseph L. Graves Jr. is the first African American evolutionary biologist in the United States, and a man truly outstanding in his field.   read more...

Anita Faye Hill (1956 - )

In this age of #MeToo, the 2017 Women’s March, and Brett Kavanaugh, charges of sexual harassment against powerful men continue to reflect the unequal distribution of justice in American society. Thirty-seven ago, African American lawyer and academic Anita Hill provided brave testimony about receiving unwanted attention from Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.   read more...

Barack Hussein Obama II (1961 - )

African American lawyer and politician Barack Obama was the first African American to occupy the White House, which he did for two terms as 44th President of the United States, from 2009-2017. Many of President Obama’s achievements have contributed to the health of Americans, whether directly or indirectly. His greatest public health accomplishment, however, was to do what no other president in the history of the United States was able to do, and that is to enact health care reform.   read more...

Kamala D. Harris (1964 - )

Kamala Harris is an African American lawyer and politician, and a possible contender for the 2020 United States presidential bid for the Democratic party. Harris announced her intentions to run on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019, which was either incredible hubris, or a brilliant political strategy. She would be the first African American woman to run for the highest office in the land.   read more...

Michelle Obama (1964 - )

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama (born Michelle Robinson) is an African American lawyer, author, role model, fashion icon, and First Lady of the United States from 2009-2017. As the First Lady, she promoted healthy eating and ending childhood obesity through her Let’s Move! campaign.   read more...

Michelle Alexander (1967 - )

Michelle Alexander is an academic and civil rights activist, as well as author of the 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. During her time as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, Alexander conducted exhaustive research on the impact of historical events on present-day incarceration rates in the prison-industrial complex. Her findings have led to much-needed prison reform in an era of conservative government.   read more...

Camara Jones (1972 - )

Camara Jones, MD, MPH, PhD is a social epidemiologist and former President of the American Public Health Association whose work explores the intersection of race, racism, poverty and discrimination on health. Among her many accomplishments, she is particularly well known for the The Gardener’s Tale, which explains societal and institutional racism in health by means of allegory.   read more...

Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, & Cynthia Erivo

'Colorism' is defined as prejudice or discrimination against people with darker skin-tone, and preference for people with lighter skin-tone. Contemporary actresses with dark skin and full-figured bodies are literally changing the face and physique of Hollywood, allowing colorism to finally be challenged by the mainstream.   read more...

LeBron James (1984 - ) & Colin Kaepernick (1987 - )

LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick are part of a long history of African American professional athletes who have used their visibility to advocate for social justice and racial equity, often risking all to do so.   read more...

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, & Opal Tometi

Community organizers and activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi are the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter (BLM), an international civil and human rights movement originating in the African American community, which campaigns against violence and systemic racism, including police killings of unarmed African Americans.   read more...


Profiles authored by Health Services Professor Dr. Clarence Spigner, in collaboration with Health Services marketing staff member Lauren Bedson (foreward; editing and research assistance). The views and opinions expressed in these profiles are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any unit of the University of Washington.