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Health in the City

Health in the City: Race, Poverty, and the Negotiation of Women’s Health in New York City, 1915–1930

Tanya Hart
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Health in the City
    Book Description:

    Shortly after the dawn of the twentieth century, the New York City Department of Health decided to address what it perceived as the racial nature of health. It delivered heavily racialized care in different neighborhoods throughout the city: syphillis treatment among African Americans, tuberculosis for Italian Americans, and so on. It was a challenging and ambitious program, dangerous for the providers, and troublingly reductive for the patients. Nevertheless, poor and working-class African American, British West Indian, and Southern Italian women all received some of the nation's best health care during this period.

    Health in the Citychallenges traditional ideas of early twentieth-century urban black health care by showing a program that was simultaneously racialized and cutting-edge. It reveals that even the most well-meaning public health programs may inadvertently reinforce perceptions of inferiority that they were created to fix.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-7518-4
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Shortly after the dawning of the twentieth century, the New York City Department of Health proclaimed its mission to protect public health in the motto “Public health is purchasable. Within natural limitations a community can determine its own death rate.”¹ To test its credo, the Department of Health conducted its first citywide mortality study in 1915.² Starting with the results of the study, the programs and action that would occur over the next fifteen years reflected the city’s power and promise to make public health a reality, the actions and reactions of its subject clientele, and the often resultant cultural...

  5. 1 Migration and the City
    (pp. 15-63)

    The New York City Department of Health conducted its first citywide health survey in 1915. The racially segregated African American and British West Indian section of Columbus Hill, an impoverished midtown Manhattan neighborhood, had exhibited inordinately high rates of infant and maternal mortality. The Department of Health termed it a “sore spot” in its 1916 report, a place warranting immediate help.¹

    So, beginning in 1917, with powers devolved from the Department of Health, the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP) coordinated public and private efforts to stem the tide of black infant and maternal deaths...

  6. 2 Professionalization in the City
    (pp. 64-84)

    In 1913, Frances Blascoer discovered the case of Mrs. R., a young woman of African descent, in Urban League referral records.¹ A white social worker who was studying the lives of black schoolchildren and their families in the San Juan Hill / Columbus Hill area, Blascoer was investigating cases of truancy and neglect, and how black social institutions were responding to the needs of the neighborhood. Mrs. R. was struggling to raise two daughters, ages nine and ten, and a two-month-old baby. Her husband had abandoned the family prior to the baby’s birth, and the Charity Organization Society had provided...

  7. 3 Work in the City
    (pp. 85-107)

    In 1908, when Dr. Sara Josephine Baker became chief of what was then known as the Division of the Bureau of Child Hygiene in the New York City Department of Health, she was the first woman to head a municipal city department in the United States. Baker’s focus on improving infant and child health employed an approach that was rather novel at the time but today would seem commonsense: instead of waiting until babies and children fell ill from contagions or substandard care, cities should invest in teaching new mothers preventive health care measures, and use visiting nurses as teachers...

  8. 4 Culture in the City
    (pp. 108-137)

    In 1892—the same year that the sixty-seven-year-old orator, abolitionist, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper published her first novel,Iola Leroy—Harper spoke before the Brooklyn Literary Society and delivered a speech titled “Enlightened Womanhood.” Hazel Carby argues that Harper’s prowess as a fiery public speaker had been honed over decades of speaking out against slavery, to the point that occasionally some whites in her audiences believed that she must have been a man dressed as a woman, or a white person darkened to look African American.¹ But the power of Harper’s rhetoric came from the convergence of two...

  9. 5 Birthing in the City: Columbus Hill
    (pp. 138-161)

    On January 13, 1917, Bailey B. Burritt, the general director for the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), faced a dilemma. The results from the New York City 1915 mortality study, the first investigation of its kind, lay before him. While the overall infant death rate paled when compared to past statistics, the figures from one sanitary district elicited shock. Moreover, Burritt had already concurred, at the solicitation of Dr. Haven Emerson, New York City’s health commissioner, that the AICP would coordinate public and private efforts to improve the district’s situation.¹ Later, in a letter...

  10. 6 Health in Columbus Hill
    (pp. 162-187)

    Educated by their southern peers to equate syphilis with blackness, to view black health problems as environmental, racial, or both, and armed with Williams’s results and anecdotal knowledge from personal cases, New York City’s health officials, physicians, and nurses turned to the eradication of congenital syphilis in their effort to decrease Columbus Hill’s black infant mortality rate. But this switch came over time.

    Initially, when Bailey Burritt had hired Miss Price in early April 1917, he advised William Kirkbride that the Columbus Hill health demonstration would focus on alleviating infant diarrheal diseases, which were “considerably higher than that of the...

  11. 7 Birthing in the City: The Mulberry District
    (pp. 188-217)

    Dr. William Guilfoy and Dr. Shirley Wynne worked for the New York City Division of Statistical Research; they compiled and published the 1915 New York City mortality study that had highlighted Columbus Hill’s black infant and maternal mortality problems. In their analysis of the study’s results, they suggested how the research could best be used in terms of health work and prevention. The city now used sanitary districts to define and delimit health, illness, and disease by racialized groupings instead of the old political ward districts. Data reflected and aided the racialization of science in the arena of urban public...

  12. 8 Health in the Mulberry District
    (pp. 218-244)

    In its ongoing effort to assimilate southern Italians in New York City by controlling their birthing methods, the AICP made certain that the public health community would understand its mission when readingProtecting the Mother and Childby defining its prenatal health care in the Mulberry District as an “entering wedge” into the community.¹ As such, the AICP’s entrance into southern Italian families and the community’s health through the bodies of women and children constituted the rupture of meanings and traditions, and a subsequent influencing of familial and community power relations. Mulberry women and their children stood at the core...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 245-290)
    (pp. 291-314)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 315-328)
    (pp. 329-329)