Race and Medical History in the South
With the start of Black History Month, The Country Doctor Museum interprets the legacy of medicine along racial lines in a new exhibit, Race and Medical History in North Carolina, and through the research shared in this online post. Within the museum’s archives housed at East Carolina University’s Laupus Health Science Library and the museum’s object collection are artifacts, medical receipts, ledgers, correspondence, and other material related to slave medical care and the treatment emancipated slaves received from white physicians in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The ledgers featured in the exhibit reveal slave owners sought medical assistance from country doctors, especially when their enslaved were sick or injured. The physical hardship slaves endured made them more susceptible to diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and pneumonia, as well as receiving injuries from farm accidents or physical punishment. Medicine and science were biased disciplines at this time, especially regarding race. Scientists and scholars, such as physician, Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, published theories that dehumanized African-Americans and may have influenced country doctors practicing in the South.
Generally, African-Americans and whites received similar medical care at this time. However, because of perceived differences between the two races, country doctors could make slight adjustments to medications or therapeutic and diagnostic techniques whether a patient was white or not. Many slaves, especially those with West African heritages, tended to distrust the harsh medical treatments used on them, such as bleeding, leeching, and the use of purgatives and strong laxatives. To combat such treatments, slaves practiced their own form of health care which included use of medicinal herbs and African spiritual healing. In these small ways, enslaved individuals in North Carolina were able to attend to their own health despite being owned by someone else.
“When the slaves on the plantation got sick they relied mostly on herbs. They used sage tea for fever, poplar bark for chills.”
– Hattie Rogers, former slave who lived near New Bern.
Many of these traditions lasted well after slavery was abolished in 1865. Physicians in the Reconstruction-era South used terms such as “negro” and “colored” to describe African-Americans in their ledgers and receipts. For example, J. T. Lewter, a physician and business owner in Hertford County, segregated records of his African-American patients to a “negro” ledger beginning in 1869. This segregation lasted well into the mid-20th century, not just for lunch counters or movie theatres, but also for medical clinics and hospitals.
During the decades following the Civil War and Emancipation, African-Americans continued to enter the medical profession. The first black physicians in North Carolina received professional licensure in May 1886. These were three classmates—M. T. Pope, L. A. Scruggs, and John T. Williams—who graduated from Shaw University’s Leonard Medical School. Despite the growing number of non-white physicians in the state after Drs. Pope, Scruggs, and Williams, African-Americans were a vast minority of the medical community. Out of over 3,000 physicians to receive medical licenses in North Carolina from 1859 to 1920, only 176 (or about 5.5%) were African-American.
Problems of racial disparityare an area the medical field continues to encounter, so it is helpful to reflect on the long history of segregated medical care within North Carolina. To learn more about the intersection of race and medicine, see the following suggested reading list and bibliography of archival sources used in this post and in the exhibit at the museum.
Race and Medical History in North Carolina is currently on display at The Country Doctor Museum.
Covey, Herbert C. African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2008.
Hogarth, Rana A. Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Lee, Michele. Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing. Wadastick, 2017.
Schwartz, Marie Jenkins. Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Ward, Thomas J. Jr. Black Physicians in the Jim Crow South. Fayetteville, Ark.: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.
J.Y. Joyner Library Special Collections
The William E. Laupus Health Sciences Library
State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.
Register of Licentiates, 1859-1920
 Todd L. Savitt, Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 82-110; Robley Dunglison, General Therapeutics and Materia Medica: Adapted for a Medical Textbook …. 6th ed. rev. and improved (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1857), 77.
 Savitt, Medicine and Slavery, 10-17; Gretchen Long, Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 11-16.
 See also Samuel George Morton and George Combe, Crania Americana, Or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America: To Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species (Philadelphia: J. Pennington, 1839). In Crania Americana, Dr. Samuel George Morton, argues that cranium size in different races determined intelligence levels. His concepts were later debunked as racist and extremely biased.
 See Savitt, Medicine and Slavery, 149-184. This chapter describes how the plantation owners and overseers attempted to treat slaves and the type of medical care provided by white physicians. The chapter also demonstrates the similarities between the methods used with white patients and black patients.
 Savitt, Medicine and Slavery, 149-184; Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 60-83, 142-168; Long, Doctoring Freedom, 11-43.
 Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 11, North Carolina, Part 2, Jackson-Yellerday. 1936. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn112/, 230.
 Negro Account Ledger, Murfreesboro Historical Association Collection, J. T. Lewter Papers (#691.1.4.a), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library.
 Register of Licentiates, 1859-1920, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina.
 Brian D. Smedley, Adrienne Y Stith, and Alan R Nelson, Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2003).