Sanitation among the Negroes

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Sanitation among the Negroes  (1888) 
From Popular Science Monthly Volume 33, September 1888 Popular Miscellany


Sanitation among the Negroes.—At a Public Health Conference held in Louisville, Ky., Bishop C. C. Penick read a paper in which he says: "It was startling to the North and the South alike, when the census of 1880 showed the tremendous increase among the colored people, and the cry of alarm ran through the land lest in the near future the black should be the dominant race in this country. The world did not recognize the fact that the great source of Southern wealth had consisted in making the negro prolific. Everything that could be done was done to eradicate all the diseases threatening to interfere with this object. In short, a man's negroes were a man's money, and you may just rest assured that he looked after them." When the race was released from bondage, its momentum carried it up to those startling figures of the 1880 census—figures which Dr. Penick thinks we shall never see again, for there is no longer an intelligent class which has a direct pecuniary interest in the health of the negroes; the latter are leaving the plantations for the less healthful surroundings of the towns, and the enfeebling vices of the town are spreading into the country. In a pamphlet by Dr. G. B. Thornton, of Memphis, it is stated that, although the white population of that city slightly exceeds the black, yet in 1880 a fifth more blacks than whites died, in 1881 a fourth more, and in the first nine months of 1882 a half more. In the back streets and alleys of Southern cities, where the colored people live crowded together, Bishop Penick says that one may see "squalor, degradation, dirt; green scum in the gutters, dammed with decomposing vegetables, and, it may be, interspersed with a stray cat or dog that came to his untimely end at some uncertain period of the distant past. It does not take a man who knows how to read a diploma in Latin to see that here are conditions most favorable for engendering diseases." During four years spent in Africa he observed that "in his native state and scanty clothing the African is the most cleanly person I ever met. As a rule, he bathes twice a day and oftener in warm water. Deformity among them is as rare as among the birds and squirrels here"; but, on the other hand, that "no sooner did I begin to put clothes on these people than their aversion to water as an external application began to manifest itself, and punishment had to be resorted to to compel those who used to be scrupulously clean to keep moderately decent." Besides the charitable motive for improving the sanitary condition of the negroes, there is another side to the matter. "In other words," says the bishop, "it is a matter of deep concern to every thoughtful man, even if he looks no higher than self-preservation, what kind of diseases cling to those who cook our food, nurse our children, make our beds, wash our clothes, and porter our sleeping-cars. We know that in all of these departments the colored race play a prominent part." The diseases arising from the filth of the back streets and alleys may thus be brought through the back door into homes whose sanitary condition gives their inmates a sense of security.