Victoria M. Wolcott

There was a fascinating question raised during the comment period of the panel “Sex, Fitness, and Self-Control: Racial Hierarchies in U.S. Public Health Histories (1890-1995)” during the 2015 Organization of American Historians conference in St. Louis. An audience member asked the panelists why they used the term “body” when discussing the men and women they analyze, given that these individuals were not simply bodies but people. After some uncomfortable silence the panelists answered that using the term “body” was standard in the fields of sexuality and health. This question, however, suggests the importance of highlighting the full humanity of historical actors whose voices are largely silent in the archive.

A crowd gathers at the 29th Street beach in Chicago after a white mob killed an African American boy by throwing stones at him. Courtesy Chicago History Museum.

Although two of the panelist had to drop out, eliminating the “fitness” part of the panel, the remaining two ably analyzed the perniciousness of white stereotypes of Black women and men as diseased and hypersexual. First up was Betsy Schlabach, Assistant Professor at Earlham College, and author of the 2013 book, Along the Streets of Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape. In her paper, “The 1919 Chicago Commission on Race Relations’ Commentary on Sex, Swimming, and the Racial Divide,” Schlabach combs the rich report on the 1919 race riot, The Negro in Chicago, to reveal “northern white stereotypes of southern African-American migrants as infected by communicable disease and fears of miscegenation.” A violation of recreational segregation sparked the 1919 Chicago riot. When an African-American boy drifted in the waters of Lake Michigan to a white beach young white men threw stones at him, drowning him. Fearing reprisals white gangs attacked African Americans who defended themselves from the mob violence, leading to the death of thirty-eight.

In my own study of recreation and race, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America, I call this conflagration a “recreation riot,” as struggles over recreational space were often the spark for rioting. No space was as contested as beaches and swimming pools. Many white swimmers perceived Black bodies as unclean and unhealthy and viewed racial mixing as presenting the possibility of interracial sex. Reading between the lines of The Negro in Chicago, Schlabach reveals how policing, white stereotypes, and by the 1930s housing policies, all inscribed race on Chicago’s geography. The legacy of such inscriptions remains with us today. When activists integrated recreational spaces such as pools and beaches after World War II, many closed down or became dilapidated. Thus, all urban dwellers suffered the consequences of sexual and racial stereotypes that justified segregation.

Next up was Jamie Wagman, Assistant Professor of History and Gender & Women’s Studies at Saint Mary’s College. Her paper, “’Bad Blood’ and ‘Good Doctors: Warnings From the U.S. Public Health Service to African Americans during WWII,” demonstrates how the link between sexuality and disease was made explicit in public health campaigns. During World War II, the American Social Hygiene Association sought to educate African Americans about the dangers of syphilis using deep-rooted racial and gender stereotypes of Black women as licentious and polluted. While previous scholars have focused on the infamous Tuskegee Study, when African-American men with syphilis were given no effective treatment by researchers, Wagman shifts the focus to Black women. She strikes a balance between the recognition that syphilis was a significant problem for impoverished women, while identifying how medical workers and others exploited the image of the Black female body as diseased. Inherent in this dynamic was a notion that Black women were incapable of understanding medical and scientific knowledge, for example by using colloquialisms like “bad blood.” This “bad blood” circulated in Black women’s bodies, suggesting not that they were suffering from a specific disease but that they were inherently licentious and unclean.

The panel left me with some questions. One is the role of the state in these stories. When city agencies or public health organizations propagate stereotypical ideas about race and disease do those ideas hold more weight and do more harm than individual perceptions? Both of these papers also grapple with dual realities: the high rates of disease and mortality among underserved African Americans, and white stereotypes of Black bodies as diseased. The perception among some whites that African Americans’ entire bodies were diseased and polluted limited patients’ ability to receive effective treatment. Their pollution was not temporary, to be cured, but rather permanent. So when Black bodies were in water they literally polluted that water. For that reason in many public swimming pools after Blacks were allotted their one-day per week to use the pool, usually Mondays, the pools were drained and refilled. Pool managers would also fill the pools with chlorine when Blacks swam, burning their eyes and skin. This perception of polluted bodies impacted treatment as well. Segregation and sterilization, rather than medicine, was a reaction to the Black body as a form of pollution. This also freed physicians and public health officials to experiment on African Americans, as in Tuskegee. Many whites also viewed Black sexuality as abhorrent, something to be walled off and policed. As in the 1919 riot or in the case of untreated disease, when those two perceptions met the results could be deadly. Although Schlabach and Wagman use the term “body” when discussing their work, they present the men and women targeted by white mobs or public officials as fully human.


Victoria W. Wolcott is a Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She is the author of Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001) and Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America (2012). She is currently working on a study of utopian communities’ role in the Long Civil Rights Movement.

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One Comment

  1. You make a very good point with “No space was as contested as beaches and swimming pools. Many white swimmers perceived Black bodies as unclean and unhealthy and viewed racial mixing as presenting the possibility of interracial sex.”

    Sadly, recreational segregation is still alive and well. “On June 5, 2015 at approximately 7:15 p.m., officers from the McKinney Police Department responded to a disturbance at the Craig Ranch North Community Pool. The initial call came in as a disturbance involving multiple juveniles at the location, who do not live in the area or have permission to be there, refusing to leave.”
    http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/07/412708943/video-shows-texas-police-officer-pulling-gun-on-teens-at-pool-party

    Note that, before the alleged fight broke out, someone had already called the police merely to report that a bunch of (black) teenagers dared to use their neighborhood pool. The police response was disproportionate and disrespectful. One officer felt entitled to throw a bikini-clad teenager to the ground and sit on her back. When some of her friends approached to check on her welfare, he pulled his gun and waved it at them. Only then did his colleague intervene, and only with regards to the gun. He went back to pinning the crying girl to the ground, and another officer eventually handcuffed her. The overzealous officer is now on leave, since the video went public. I wonder how many similar incidents have gone unremarked by those who were not directly involved.

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