Tuberculosis, also known as the White Plague, was a major health problem within the United States during the nineteenth century. The disease continued into the twentieth century and was the cause of many deaths. In 1936, it was estimated that one out of every twenty-one deaths was due to tuberculosis (Baughman). Among those deaths, a disproportionate number of them occurred among blacks (Ward). African-Americans had a higher death rate during the tuberculosis epidemic because they could not get the treatment they needed.
Racial segregation has a long and unfortunate history in the United States. One of the downstream consequences of racial segregation was that white people who were diagnosed with tuberculosis were likely to be treated in a residential sanatorium, a medical facility that was used during the time to treat tuberculosis; but black people, even if diagnosed early, were given few or no treatment options, which resulted in higher death rates.
In February of 1924 African-Americans led a state-wide campaign to obtain funds to build a tuberculosis hospital in Kerrville, Texas, for blacks living in the south-western states of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas (The Austin Statesman). It wasn’t until 13 years later, however, on June 1, 1937, that such a facility was opened. Named the Kerrville State Sanatorium, it offered free and better care and amenities for blacks up until 1949. After its closing, the remaining patients were sent to another hospital in Tyler, Texas (Winkle).
In a cartoon titled, “The Shadow,” published in the Dallas Moring News on February 25,1931, cartoonist John Knott depicts the White Plague as a white robed figure entering a room labeled “Destitute Negro.” (One thing to take into account when viewing this cartoon is that while we now consider the term “Negro” to be offensive, at that time it was considered to be the appropriate term to use.) The shadow cast by the White Plague is a gloomy figure, like the Shadow of Death, looming and foreshadowing what will happen to the impoverished people behind the door.
The cartoon’s accompanying editorial titled, “The Black White Plague,” also could be misunderstood upon first reading (e.g., tuberculosis being carried by blacks constitutes a plague). However, the editorial actually promotes a progressive message. It comments on how cruel it was to refuse medical aid to people because of their skin color and explains that by doing so, race-based health inequities harm all people.
Race and segregation played a big role in who got what during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If people like John Knott saw that Segregation was unjust, one would think that the matter of health inequities would have been controlled by now; but that’s far from the case. Unfortunately, 54 years after the end of segregation, health disparities continue to be a problem and people’s health and well-being are still too often determined by the color of their skin.
Burns, CHESTER R. “University of Texas Medical Branch At Galveston.” Texas State Historical Association, 15 June 2010, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/kcu29.
Joseph, D. George. “Tuberculosis.” Dictionary of American History, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 3rd ed., vol. 8, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 235-238. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3401804292/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=51e75362. Accessed 2 May 2018.
Knott, John. “The shadow” Illustration. Dallas Morning News 25 Feb 1931: 18. News Bank. Web. 2 May 2018. < http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=V50N4DWHMTUyNTc2MTEzOS4yNjA3MDU6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_docref=v2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-104D1FAAE39AFF33@2426398-104D1FAB9E250B09@17>.
“Negro.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 5, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 458-459. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3045301725/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=0d4d2874. Accessed 2 May 2018.
“Negros Propose to Build Tuberculosis Hospital At Kerrville.” The Austin Statesman (1921-1973), Feb 24, 1924, pp. 5. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1643861748?accountid=7118.
“The Great White Plague.” Dallas Morning News. 25 Feb., 1931, http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=S4CE4EAIMTUyNTM5NDI1Ny42MTY5MTc6MToxMjoxMjguODMuNjMuMjA&p_docref=image%2Fv2:0F99DDB671832188@EANX-104D1FAAE39AFF33@2426398-104D1FAB9E250B09@17-104D1FAF50A85223
“‘The Great White Plague’—Tuberculosis Before the Age of Antibiotics.” American Decades, edited by Judith S. Baughman, et al., vol. 4: 1930-1939, Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/apps/doc/CX3468301286/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=eadf7701. Accessed 2 May 2018.
Ward, Thomas J., Jr. “Health Care.” The Jim Crow Encyclopedia, edited by Nikki L.M. Brown and Barry M. Stentiford, vol. 1, Greenwood Press, 2008, pp. 363-371. Greenwood Milestones in African American History. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/apps/doc/CX3256100137/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=c6eb623d. Accessed 2 May 2018.
Winkle, Irene Van. “TB Hospital for Blacks Gave Hope to Many Who Recovered.” Wkcurrent.com, 21 Feb. 2008, wkcurrent.com/tb-hospital-for-blacks-gave-hope-to-many-who-recovered-p1416-71.htm.