Black History Month 2017

The School of Public Health’s inaugural Black History Month Lecture: Mindy Fullilove

Nearly 400 years ago, that’s where Dr. Mindy Fullilove, Professor of Urban Policy and Health at the New School, started her talk. It was in 1619 that Africans first arrived in Jamestown to be sold into bondage. The upcoming 400th anniversary of that event, Fullilove explained, is an important one. It’s a chance to commemorate and explore the experiences of those 400 years.

Dr. Fullilove’s talk “<3/5th’s: Assessing the Costs of 400 Years of Inequality,” was the School of Public Health’s inaugural Black History Month Lecture. The idea, conceived by Master’s of Public Health students Nicole Aimua, Cat Nwachukwu, and Ewu Harrell, is to host an annual lecture focusing on public health topics specific to black populations.

It was fitting then, to start at the very beginning of America’s long struggle with inequality. Dr. Fullilove explained that not long after 1619, inequality became “the fundamental operating principle in American society.” Laws were enacted, such as the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, that codified inequality and created a caste system. Later in that century, the Three-Fifths Compromise apportioned to the States 3/5ths of one person for each slave. The slave states thereby gained greater representation than they would otherwise have had. “Without those votes we would have had a different history,” Fullilove said. “These kinds of decisions, at the founding, are shaping the history of the Republic.”

Fullilove described this legally formulated inequality—a deep contradiction in a country where “all men are created equal”—as America’s fatal flaw. As she elucidated the Country’s 400-year history of oppression—of Africans, but also of women, of Native Americans, and of the poor—this flaw of inequality threaded itself through the Civil War, two World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, and, despite progress, through the challenges we face today.

“ Not long after 1619, inequality became “the fundamental operating principle in American society.” ”

Caroline Kuo, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Assistant Professor of behavioral and social sciences in the School of Public Health said that Dr. Fullilove’s talk “provided a timely reminder of the value of looking back. A careful historical analysis,” she said, “can help inform the formulation of successful strategies for confronting the enormous challenges we face ahead.”

Before the talk itself, Dr. Fulliolove met with a small group of Public Health students. “We talked about being advocates and allies for change in this tumultuous political climate,” Nwachukwu said. “She reminded us not to be overwhelmed by all of the things we could do, but rather, just to pick one act of change, and do that.”

Aimua’s takeaway from the meeting was “Change starts now. Not when you’ve gotten your degree. Not when you are established in a career. Change starts the moment you see that things aren’t right and need to be improved for the good of all.”

Given the centrality of health disparities to the work of so many in the School of Public Health, coming together annually to address Black History can only enrich that work. “Having an annual Black History Month lecture gives us the opportunity as a school to have open discussions about how the history of inequality in this country shapes our work as public health practitioners,” Nwachukwu said. “We can’t address health disparities without understanding why those health disparities exist, and centering us as a school with an annual Black History Month lecture can start to contribute to that understanding.”

The success of the School of Public Health’s first Black History Month lecture will ensure that the lecture continues to inspire students, faculty, and staff for years to come.