Medical historians Byrd and Clayton (2002) have summarized the historical context for understanding the inequality of healthcare for African Americans before the establishment of Black medical professional organizations like the AMA and the challenges that remained because of the tenacious system of institutionalized racism and segregation welded into the infrastructure of this society:
“At no time since their arrival in the Americas have African Americans shared equal health care status or outcome with other Americans”
While the sanitation, nutritional, and environmental health conditions under which African-Americans were forced to live were responsible for much of their adverse health conditions, an ever growing responsibility for the health picture based on race can be laid squarely at the feet of the health system. As health care treatments, procedures, and interventions become more effective, the proportion of the race-based health deficit due to structural and functional deficits in the system could be expected to increase (79).
Byrd and Clayton allude to the fact that the beginnings of the systematic mistreatment of African Americans by the medical establishment can be traced back to the centuries of enslavement of African people in America. Georgia was typical of other southern states: The high mortality rate of enslaved African women, men, and children occurred because of a combination of poor diet, poor living conditions, poor medical care, and overwork. Only about $3.00 per year was provided for medical treatment for each enslaved person. White physicians and scientist frequently used enslaved women, men, and children as guinea pigs for medical experiments and surgical procedures (42). Perhaps the collective memory of such brutalities in part explains why even today many African Americans are leery about participating in medical studies, signing up for organ donation or volunteering to submit to experimental treatment of diseases that plague them.
To counter medical mistreatment by their captors, enslaved Africans in Georgia relied on their own folk medicine to preserve their health and lives. At least ninety plants have been documented as being used by Black people for medicinal purposes during enslavement and beyond (Grant 42). This is not surprising, for the tradition of people of African descent successfully diagnosing and treating a wide range of ailments goes back to the days of the ancient Egyptian physician Imhotep.
(Excerpt from “All Day And All Night: “A History of the Atlanta Medical Association”)
Although the number of Black physicians and medical facilities providing services to African Americans has greatly increased, access remains a problem for the thousands of African Americans without adequate health care coverage.