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four women Black and three Black men seated in a waiting room
Waiting room at the municipal tuberculosis sanitarium, Chicago, Illinois, 1941. United States. Office of War Information, Edwin Rosskam, photographer.

Honoring African American Contributions in Medicine: The Black Angels

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This guest post was authored by 2020 Junior Fellow Sophia Southard, University of Kansas Graduate, B.A. in History. Sophia is starting the MLIS program at the  University of Pittsburgh Online, Fall 2020. This is the third in a series looking at African Americans in the business and sciences.

A person is inside a tiny one room house with screen windows, while a woman outside walks towards the door.
A separate room outdoors, isolation unit for tuberculosis patient in the backyard of her family’s home on La Delta project, Thomastown, Louisiana, 1940. Marion Post Wolcott.

While searching through the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, I happened upon an incredibly interesting picture taken in the 1940s depicting an African American woman sitting in an outdoor shelter while a woman walks past. According to the picture’s title, the shelter happened to be an isolation unit the woman kept herself confined to while she battled tuberculosis. Given the social distancing, quarantine, and isolation practices we have experienced in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, it made me question what self-isolation and treatment for tuberculosis looked like during the 1940s.

For one, tuberculosis patients restricted to isolation units wouldn’t have had the wonders of modern-day technology to distract them. On the other hand, African Americans who contracted tuberculosis would not only have had to deal with the repercussions of the infectious bacterial disease, they also had to deal with segregation and the difficulties of finding treatment.

Window store from with the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium engraved on the window.
Municipal tuberculosis sanitarium, Chicago provides treatment to Negroes, 1941. Russell Lee.

Although this blog is primarily on how tuberculosis affected the African American population during the 1940s, I wanted to include a few facts about the disease as it applies in 2020.

  • Tuberculosis is one of the oldest diseases in the history of mankind. Evidence of tubercular decay dates all the way back to Egyptian mummies from 3000-2400 BCE.
  • Tuberculosis is a global pandemic.
  • About 90% of people infected with TB don’t show any symptoms.
  • Today TB causes more deaths than either malaria or HIV/AIDS.
  • TB normally attacks the lungs and is spread through the air via coughing or sneezing.

At the onset of the 20th century, before the discovery of streptomycin, an antibacterial agent used to treat tuberculosis in 1943, African Americans suffered at a higher annual mortality from tuberculosis than whites. In the December 3, 1920, issue of The Democratic Advocate, the reporter wrote that the negro death rate from tuberculosis was about three times greater in proportion than that of the white race. At the time, there was “no sanatorium where tuberculosis negro patients” could be sent.

A man and woman in white clothing are standing on either side of a patient laying on their left side.
Pneumo-thorax treatment in municipal tuberculosis sanitarium. Mostly Negroes are treated at this particular location, Chicago, 1941. Russell Lee.

Before the advent of antibiotics, people who contracted TB isolated themselves, either in isolation huts or sanitoriums. Although the majority of sanatoriums were built in the West, The Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium acted as the largest sanatorium in the country.

In the February 4, 1917 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, the reporter wrote of the removal of Dr. Roscoe Giles, an African American physician who continued working at the Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitorium “despite the protests of the 700 patients.” However, the sanitorium dismissed Dr. Giles “after scores of patients had refused to allow him to treat them and members of the medical staff had refused to sit at the table with him.”

In The Metropolitan News, Marion Nelson, a Statistical Assistant for the National Tuberculosis Association, wrote, “One-third of the city’s tuberculosis deaths occur among the Negro population, although they constitute but little more than seven percent of the city’s entire population.”

“The Black Angels” 

A person leaning against a small one-room house.
shed constructed to house tuberculosis patient, Crystal City, Texas. Mexican settlement, 1939. Russell Lee.

In the February 29, 1952 issue of The Evening Star titled “But where are the patients?”, a photographer took a picture of an empty room in a tuberculosis ward at Seaview Hospital in Staten Island, New York. The reporter wrote about new drugs that “give real hope of finally defeating TB.” Many African American nurses served at Seaview Hospital. Deemed “black angels,” the nurses risked their lives to work in tuberculosis wards when a cure in the form of antibiotics had yet to be discovered and white nurses refused to serve. As a result, around three hundred “black angels” served both white and black patients from 1928-1960.

Just as the coronavirus is now impacting people and communities across the United States and the world, tuberculosis did the same. I began this blog post with a picture of an African American woman in an isolation unit, and now I will leave you with the picture of the first known isolation unit, this time in Crystal City, Texas, at a Mexican settlement.

Learn more

For a more general look at tuberculosis in the United States, search “tuberculosis sanitorium state,” “tuberculosis treatment,” or for a general overview, “tuberculosis.”

Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.


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Comments (2)

  1. Another Great article on the contributions African Americans have made in the USA.

    Thank you for sharing this Important Historical Truth.

  2. nice article

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