In the early 20th century, much of the black population lived in poverty and was concentrated in the rural South. Formal health care was often nonexistent, sanitation was poor, nutrition was inadequate, and housing substandard.
In 1914, Booker T. Washington stated, "Without health, and until we reduce the high death rate, it will be impossible for us to have permanent success in business, in property getting, in acquiring education, or to show other evidences of progress." He launched the National Health Improvement Week in 1915, later known as National Negro Health Week (NNHW).
The NNHW was managed by an oversight committee at Tuskegee Institute. There were two primary objectives: "1) to provide practical suggestions for local Health Week committees that conduct the observance; and 2) to stimulate the people as a whole to cooperative endeavor in clean-up, educational, and specific hygienic and clinical services for general sanitary improvement of the community and for health betterment of the individual, family, and home." An early week in April was chosen for NNHW as a memorial to Booker T. Washington's birthday on April 5.
National Negro Health Week was planned as an eight day week with a different focus for each day of the week. An 8-day week beginning and ending on Sunday was deliberately established to take advantage of the church as a major convener of community groups.
Sunday- Mobilization Day
Focused on health sermons during church services and popular mass meetings.
Monday- Home Hygiene Day
Distributed pamphlets and presented lectures and demonstrations for adults and children on the importance of personal and household cleanliness.
Tuesday-Community Sanitation Day
Presented educational activities promoting safe water, food and milk supplies, waste disposal, clean streets, safe wells, and destruction of swamp breeding grounds of insects.
Wednesday-Special Campaign Day
Concentrated on the specific health problem identified in the community needs assessment conducted by the Health Week Central Committee.
Thursday- Adult Health Day
Emphasized annual health examinations for adults through health education programs with men's and women's organizations and clinics operated by the local medical society.
Friday-School Health Day
Promoted health education programs and school-based health services. The education programs utilized essays, songs, games, and plays focused on good health habits and parental improvements were heavily emphasized. School cleanup activities were organized.
Saturday-General Cleanup Day
Focused on cooperative large scale cleanup activities and inspection of community health campaign results. Collecting data and taking pictures for reports and newspapers was a key activity.
Sunday-Reports and Follow-up Day
Focused on community gatherings through church and large civic meetings.
The week concluded with a review of all activities and achievements, intermingled with food, music, and inspirational speeches.
Excerpted from: The National Negro Health Week, 1915 to 1951: A Descriptive Account, Sandra Crouse Quinn, PhD; Stephen B. Thomas, PhD