From body snatchers to windowless basement clinics, the history of African-American health care in Virginia is an ugly one. And as The Valentine’s Controversy/History series revealed last week, some of those problems are still all-too-prevalent today.
Beliefs based in pseudoscience made access to Virginia’s healthcare system harder for African-Americans across generations, according to the most recent installment of the Valentine’s ongoing series of conversations, Controversy/History.
Over 50 Central Virginians attended the latest program in the Controversy/History series, “Healthy Community: Disease and Disparity,” to discuss racial discrimination in the history of the healthcare system.
Disparity in the healthcare system dates back 400 years, to when the first Africans arrived in Virginia. This was highlighted as part of the discussion life-expectancy rates in Richmond neighborhoods today. In Westover Hills, a predominantly white neighborhood, life expectancy averages 83 years. But in Gilpin Court, a historically black neighborhood on the North Side, life-expectancy is as low as 63 years.
Community members bonded early in the meeting as they split off into small group discussions about how they have been let down by the health care system.
“I had a close call,” said Richmond resident Bernadette LeMasters. “I had no health insurance because I didn’t have a job.”
LeMasters had a health emergency soon after gaining access to health insurance through employment.
“I would have been paying $60,000,” LeMasters said. “I’m just so thankful that insurance covered virtually all of it.”
Not all Virginians have been so lucky. An estimated 2,700 Virginians aged 25-64 died between 2005 and 2010 because of a lack of health care coverage. Roughly 20 percent of uninsured Virginians are African-American, according to the Virginia Health Care Foundation. Those percentages may be higher when looking at specific diseases, according to Rodney Lofton, the Deputy Director of Diversity Richmond, who spoke at the Controversy/History event about the racial disparities in health care that still exist in Virginia today.
“African-Americans make up roughly about 13% of the U.S. population, but account for almost half of the reported HIV/AIDS cases,” Lofton said. “So we ask, what did we do wrong, or what is wrong with the system?”
Valentine Director Bill Martin and Coffee with Strangers host Kelli Lemon took the crowd through 400 years of Virginia history and the development of racial disparity in the healthcare system.
“Influential speakers like Thomas Jefferson perpetuated the belief in an inherent biological difference between the races,” Martin said.
Martin quoted Jefferson’s 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, saying, “Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.”
Martin also condemned the acts of J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, who used enslaved women as test subjects for his surgical procedures. At the time, pseudoscience perpetuated the idea that people of African descent had a higher pain tolerance than white people, which Sims used to justify not using anesthesia on his victims.
The African-American people of Richmond faced similar eras of scientific experimentation. In 1994, construction on East Marshall Street in Richmond uncovered the remains of at least 53 individuals, mostly of African descent.
These were bodies stolen from graves in African-American cemeteries” Lemon said.
Nineteenth century body snatchers would take corpses fresh from their graves to be used as cadavers for anatomy students at Richmond’s Medical College of Virginia. Sycamore Cemetery in Barton Heights on the North Side and Oakwood Cemetery in the East End were frequented; however, it may not always have been corpses medical schools were after.
“According to some accounts, African-American children were warned against going near MCV at night out of fear of being kidnapped and dissected,” Lemon said.
The atrocities faced by the African-American communities only made healthcare access more difficult. Early in Virginia history, black healers and doctors lived within slave communities, but were often forbidden by law to practice healthcare. Slaves fell to yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery, but were often provided no treatment, and no time off to recover, Lemon said.
Over time, access to healthcare in slave communities from black healers and doctors worsened, while whites benefited from work done primarily by African-Americans.
“African-American women played a critical role in nursing and midwifery,” Lemon said. “Black women worked independently on plantations or assisted white doctors, making them an integral part of healthcare, until nursing became a white institution which denied black women access.”
A shortage of black health care providers meant that African-Americans had to receive healthcare from white professionals, healthcare that Lemon said was often “biased and inadequate.” Richmond’s own MCV didn’t even allow students of color to enroll until 1962.
During the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, a call for volunteers brought Richmond icon Maggie L. Walker to John Marshall High School, which was acting as an emergency hospital. Walker found ailing blacks confined to a windowless room in the basement. As the hospital continued to crowd, Walker convinced the governor to open Merchants Hospital in Gilpin Court, to be run out of Baker School by black doctors and black nurses, Martin said.
Karen Legato, the Executive Director of Health Brigade, was also in attendance at the Valentine event. Health Brigade started in 1968 as a small community clinic, known at the time as the Fan Free Clinic.
“Our response to the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s was what Fan Free Clinic really became known for,” Legato said.
Echoing Lofton’s account of the response to AIDS, Legato told the crowd that providing care for AIDS patients was “very much a white gay movement at that time.”
“We did not have a sense of what that disease was in terms of race, and we were not paying attention to it,” Legato said.
Now, Health Brigade’s mission is, according to their website, to “provide quality health services, especially to those least served, in a compassionate and non-judgmental environment.”
“All of the patients who come to us are low-income, 18 and over, uninsured, underinsured, people of color, immigrants, LGBT, and other stigmatized populations,” Legato said.
The pursuance of intersectional access to healthcare was a common theme in Legato and Lofton’s goals for Richmond’s future.
“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got so much further to go in order to make sure everyone in this city has access to affordable healthcare that is culturally appropriate, that’s culturally sensitive and provided in a respectful way,” Lofton said.