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How Alpha Kappa Alpha Responded to a Neglected Public Health Crisis During the 1930’s/1940’s

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In the summer of 1934 Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority initiated their “Summer School for Rural Teachers” in rural Lexington, Mississippi. The program was intended to improve the quality of education facilitation among Black teachers in Lexington. At this time, nearly 63% of Black teachers within the state of Mississippi were without a highschool diploma. Ida L. Jackson, a native Mississippian, the then-serving Supreme Basileus of Alpha Kappa Alpha and supervisor of the teacher’s training camp, recognized that access to quality health care was a more pressing concern for residents of Lexington– a small town in rural Mississippi with a population of 24,000, most of whom did not have access to a medical doctor or dentist in the immediate area. 

“Poor housing conditions on those plantations, the very unsanitary conditions under which the families exist keep the race percentage of mortality high. The very large families that are crowded into two and three rooms, the lack of sewage facilities, the poor lights–the fact that mothers are required to go to the fields before health conditions ordinarily would permit, the fact that little children, girls of 7 and 3 years of age work in the fields ” were given by Ida L. Jackson as the reason that AKA initiated this program.  via the Pittsburgh Courier (February 2, 1935)

Ida Louise Jackson (AKA’s 8th Supreme Basileus) pictured in 1942
via Public Domain

The addition of a health component to the Sorority’s already existing Summer School received great praise and recognition by members of the sorority as well as local and national leaders. Patt Harrison, a Democrat Senator from Mississippi, and Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Director of the National Negro Health Movement, praised the sorority for their efforts to provide aid to economically vunerable communities.

This initiative would soon take the name, the Mississippi Health Project. In its first year the project operated a clinic at Saints Academy in Holmes county. The clinic operated from 9am to 4pm for six weeks during the months of July and August. Children and families were vaccinated and given additional health screenings. At night the clinic was used for health conferences, lectures on diet and hygiene, and focus groups about the general care of parents and families in the county.

Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee administering a blood test to a woman at clinic in the Mississippi Delta in 1938
via 4th Annual Report of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, December 1938.

After its first summer in operation AKA reported that nearly two-thousand immunizations were administered, mostly for diphtheria and smallpox. Over six-thousands pieces of literature was distributed. Marjorie Hollomon Parker, Historian of AKA, rendered: “as an experiment in cooperative community service between the Sorority, the local profession and the other official Health Department, the first Mississippi Health Project had an electrifying effect upon the social consciousness of members.”

On the part of Alpha Kappa Alpha, much credit was given to Sorors Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (Medical Director of the Mississippi Health Project) and her inaugural committee consisted of: Drs. Zenobia Gilpin (Howard University), Myra Smith (Howard University), and Sadie Berry Montier (Temple University). 

Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was an obstetrician trained at Tufts University– she finished within the Top 5 of her graduating class in 1924. In 1927 Dr. Ferebee was hired by the Howard University College of Medicine to serve as an instructor of obstetrics. She worked in a number of capacities at Howard until her retirement in 1968. She later served as Physician of women students and later as medical director of the Howard University Health Service. At the request of Ida L. Jackson, Dr. Ferebee served as the Mississippi Health Project’s Medical Director from the program’s inception in 1935 and its formal conclusion in 1942. During her tenure as Medical Director, Dr. Ferebee was elected tenth Supreme Basileus of AKA at the sorority’s 22nd Boule in Boston in December of 1939. Nearly a decade later, in 1949, she led the National Council of Negro Women, after the retirement of the organization’s founder and 1st President, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.

Under the direction of Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, the Mississippi Health Project continued to grow throughout the years. AKA remained the major financier of this program and leveraged its sisterhood of nearly 3,000 members to advocate for policies and laws that would provide quality healthcare to African Americans.

In 1940, the sorority urged the passage of a bill to support funding for the erection of a hospital facility for Black Mississippians. At the project’s peak it aided nearly 15,000 children and families. The Sorority also acquired vehicles to make their services and treatments more accessible to families located in the deep rural-inland on plantations.

Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee profiled in the Chicago Defender, a leading Black newspaper, in 1938 
via The Chicago Defender (National edition); December 31, 1938

The program was eventually discontinued during the summer of 1942. Marjorie Hollomon Parker contends: the impact of a nation getting ready to participate in World War II greatly affected the dissemination of resources needed to sustain the project. In addition, a significant amount of people were either going to war or work. The program is said to have been reached by nearly 20,000 Black Mississippians. By that time, the Mississippi Health Project was supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, the Health Department of the state of Mississippi.

A family living on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta circa 1930’s
via Marion Post Wolcott’s ‘Mississippi Delta Plantation Life’ (1930’s) 

In 2006, Alpha Kappa Alpha partnered with the National Institute of Health to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the Mississippi Health Project. Both groups pledged money to support research that would reduce the risks of sudden infant death syndrome among African-American infants.

The sorority continues to do work which improves the quality of health for African American women and their families. At present, AKA has a specific target initiative focusing on ‘Women’s Health and Wellness,’ such as the AKA Mobile Breast Cancer Screening Unit— that provides free mammograms to Black women that may not otherwise have access to such resources.

About the author: Marquis Taylor is a senior studying history, with concentrations in African American and public history, at Howard University. In the spring of 2018, Marquis was initiated into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated’s Beta Chapter.

SOURCES
1. The program was intended to improve the quality of education facilitation among Black teachers in Lexington. At this time, nearly 63% of Black teachers within the state of Mississippi were without a highschool diploma. Marjorie H. Parker, Alpha Kappa Alpha Through the Years 1908-1988 (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1990), 101.  || 2. Patt Harrison, a Democrat Senator from Mississippi and Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Director of the National Negro Health Movement praised the sorority for their efforts to provide aid to economically vunerable communities. “Sorority Will Aid in Immunizing Clinic.” The Pittsburgh Courier, June 29, 1935.|| 3. Children and families were vaccinated and given additional health screenings. At night the clinic was used for health conferences, lectures on diet and hygiene, and focus groups about the general care of parents and families in the county. Marjorie H. Parker, Alpha Kappa Alpha Through the Years 1908-1988 (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1990), 104. || 4. After its first summer in operation AKA reported that nearly two-thousand immunizations were administered, mostly for diphtheria and smallpox. Over six-thousands pieces of literature was distributed. Marjorie H. Parker, Alpha Kappa Alpha Through the Years 1908-1988 (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1990), 101.||  5. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was an obstetrician trained at Tufts University– she finished within the Top 5 of her graduating class in 1924. Diane Kiesel, She Can Bring Us Home: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, Civil Rights Pioneer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2019), 18.|| 6. During her tenure as Medical Director, Dr. Ferebee was elected tenth Supreme Basileus of AKA at the sorority’s 22nd Boule in Boston in December of 1939. “Dr. Ferebee Elected New A.K.A. Head: 22nd Boule Pledges Aid for Underprivileged Throughout Nation.” Philadelphia Tribune, January 11, 1940.||  7. In 1940, the sorority urged the passage of a bill to support funding for the erection of a hospital facility for Black Mississippians. “AKA’s URGE PASSAGE OF HOSPITAL BILL: SAY CONDITIONS IN SOUTH ARE DEPLORABLE States That Mississippi Has Only 65 Beds For Race Patients.” The Chicago Defender (National edition), March 22, 1940. |8. Marjorie Parker Hollomon contends: the impact of a nation getting ready to participate in World War II greatly affected the dissemination of resources needed to sustain the project. In addition, a significant amount of people were either going to war or work.Marjorie H. Parker, Alpha Kappa Alpha Through the Years 1908-1988 (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 1990), 111.||  9 By that time, the Mississippi Health Project was supported by the U.S. Public Health Service, the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, the Health Department of the state of Mississippi. “AKA Public Health Meeting.” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 9, 1937.

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