Black History Month is a time to celebrate and reflect on the achievements of African Americans of our past, and to remind us that history is still being written through the many contributions of our colleagues of African ancestry in advancing the mission of the School of Medicine (SOM) and VCU.
In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, noted historian who is regarded as the Father of Black History, established the second week of February as Negro History Week. He chose this week because it included the birthdates of President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). Dr. Woodson's declared vision for Negro History Week extended beyond merely acknowledging the contributions of Black Americans: it also sought to be a platform from which to eradicate bias and discrimination.
In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month, socializing Dr. Woodson’s scholarship and activism in contemporary culture. Black History Month centers our attention on the contributions of Black Americans in helping shape the contours of this nation.
A recent report commissioned by VCU highlighted the extent to which the Medical College of Virginia relied on enslaved Africans in its construction and operations from its founding in 1838 through the end of the Civil War. While this may not be surprising in the context of the antebellum South, this report provides important details about our past history and its abhorrent ties to slavery. As clinicians, scientists and human beings, we know details are important. It also adds to the conversation we have already begun, and the actions we have initiated.
Following the death of George Floyd, the SOM implemented new content in our medical student orientation program to provide students an unfiltered account of our prior history of bias and discrimination. Icons that commemorate people and places with historical ties to racism and other forms of discrimination were removed. We established a key leadership role — the senior associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion — as well as an Inclusion Council to advance DEI. The health science campus also launched its History and Health program to balance our history with our aspiration of a more diverse and equitable future.
Even with these actions, much work remains. As made painfully obvious during the pandemic, many of the health disparities and inequities of our past continue today. According to the Centers for Disease Control
- The death rate for African Americans decreased 25% from 1999 to 2015.
- African Americans ages 18-49 are 2 times as likely to die from heart disease than whites.
- African Americans ages 35-64 years are 50% more likely to have high blood pressure than whites.
These disparities are consequences of systemic racism still present in health care today. We can and must do better.
As we move forward in 2023, let us remember and abide by the commitment to inclusivity and equity in our school's diversity statement. Our clinicians, faculty and researchers are uniquely positioned to both care for our most vulnerable citizens and to train our future workforce to overcome the longstanding legacy of health disparities and inequities. Collectively as a school of medicine, we are accountable to each other and our fellow community members to celebrate Black History today and to bring an understanding of it to our work and learning.
There are multiple events taking place throughout VCU and VCU Health to commemorate Black History Month. Events of note include:
- Feb. 16. 5-6 p.m.: Black Faculty Representation in Academic Medicine: Implications and Opportunities for Education, Research, and Patient Care
- An interactive discussion of the current profile of Black faculty in the SOM, and our efforts to advance greater inclusivity in our recruitment and retention efforts and in our curriculum. Held in partnership with the Black Education Association. Please join us in person at the Molecular Medical Research Building or via Zoom.
- Feb. 28, 4-6:30 p.m.: First Mental Hospital: Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane.
- The Black Education Association and SOM are co-sponsoring a screening of a new documentary written and directed by Dr. Shawn Utsey, professor, VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, at the Larrick Student Center.
We strongly encourage you to participate in the events, share and discuss their impact with your colleagues, and apply the lessons from these conversations in your work experience. Black History Month 2023 provides an important opportunity for the SOM community to continue our dialogue to action about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to become.
David Chelmow, M.D.
Interim Dean, VCU School of Medicine
Interim Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, VCU Health System
Kevin Harris, Ph.D.
Senior Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion