The Forgotten Healers

February 18th, 2020

By Denise O. Smith

Carter G. Woodson was one of many African descendants in America to shatter racist Black inferiority stereotypes and confront the horrors of enslavement with intelligence, determination and vision. Fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Woodson received his doctorate from Harvard University and joined with other black scholars to found the Journal of Negro History in 1916, collecting primary data, testimony and conducting field research to confirm the significance of Black history. “We are going back to that beautiful history and it is going to inspire us to greater achievements,” he told Hampton University students and began to promote Black History Week in February 1926. Since 1976, US Presidents have declared February as Black History Month. Today a number of countries around the world host similar celebrations.

The history of black Americans – people of African descent who were kidnapped by the English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden

and enslaved in lands stolen from Indigenous North American nations – is indeed beautiful. This community, diverse in hue, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, sexual orientation and language has impacted the entire planet and nearly every other community on earth. Our slave labor formed the basis for the “greatest economy in the world”. Our gospel, blues, jazz and hip hop genres have established global music industries, and our diverse protest movements have inspired communities the world over to realize a truer manifestation of democracy, self determination and human dignity. 

Black history in America is also fraught with pain and unresolved conflict. Structural racism, 250 years of enslavement from 1619 until 1865, and 100 years of Jim Crow segregation, conspire to produce poor health outcomes in present day black American life through the social determinants of health: the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and inclusive of socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social support networks, as well as access to health care (, 2020).

Early correlation between racialized social, physical, and economic environments and health can be found in The Philadelphia Negro, the groundbreaking social research of W.E.B. DuBois who in 1899 confirmed that “the problems faced by Philadelphia’s blacks had nothing to do with their supposed racial proclivities, but derived from the way they had been treated in the past and their relegation in the present to the most segregated housing and, menial, lowest-paying jobs” (UPenn Press). In the absence of equitable access to healthy environments and opportunities, enslaved Black Americans drew from their ancestral healing practices, learned from Indigenous Tribes and (were forced to) follow Western medical norms to develop a new practice: their own version of community health work to ensure their survival.

While the accounts of the brutality and subjugation of this time period make these records painful to read, slave narratives, and medical school and doctor records reveal lost stories of a hidden workforce in which mostly (elder) women firmly established their own Community Health Worker (CHW) professional practice of physical, mental health and spiritual healing. White slave masters and doctors reluctantly accepted the overwhelming trust and respect Black CHWs were given by their community members. Because these healers were often ordered to care for their slave masters’ families or sold in slave markets at a higher price because of their health expertise, this healing work became a dangerous if necessary practice. Yet their work was passed down the generations, through Emancipation, beyond DuBois’ research and continues even to this 2020 Celebration of Black History Month.

Over 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, healthcare and public health organizations began acknowledging the impact of multigenerational, dehumanizing, racially segregated structures on health status and health outcomes (Heckler Report, 1985), (Unequal Treatment, 2003). Scaleable impact and achievement of health equity can only be realized through the dismantling of racialized structures, and social barriers and the elevation of the stories, history and traditions of self determination, ingenuity and adaptation Community Health Workers bring to community health practice.

Community Health Workers, frontline public health workers who are trusted members of and/or have an unusually close understanding of the community served, continue their centuries old tradition in response to racial barriers to health and well being. While researchers increasingly confirm that the qualities and competencies of CHWs are producing evidence of improved health status and outcomes among target populations and (Centers for Disease Control, ASTHO, UPenn) and recommend expanded utilization of CHW models, our survival is the proof of the relevance, effectiveness and sustainability of the CHW model. 

As we pause to celebrate the beauty and survival of Blacks in America, we remember the tireless healers who sustained our communities and passed down an authentic practice of community-centered work. 


  • February 19, 2020 by 

    Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up! 🙂

    • March 3, 2020 by 
      Denise Smith

      I appreciate your kind words and your support of content like this! We are working to elevate and center CHW history and impact!

  • February 29, 2020 by

    Another unknown Black history fact! Love it!

    • March 3, 2020 by 
      Denise Smith

      So glad that you liked it! We want to lift up these and many other hidden stories of our CHW legacy. Feel free to keep sharing on our Connect Page!

  • March 10, 2020 by 
    Johnny Konieczny

    I love reading through an article that can make people think.

  • March 12, 2020 by 
    Shawnta Jackson

    I love this and will be sharing with my CHW colleagues.,

  • May 30, 2020 by 
    Nelle Litalien

    It¡¦s really a nice and helpful piece of information. I am happy that you just shared this useful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  • June 1, 2020 by 
    Lissa Johanek

    Hello! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out

  • June 2, 2020 by 
    Emelina Boutilier

    Hi there. I found your blog by means of Google at the same time as looking for a similar subject, your website came up. It appears good. I have bookmarked it in my google bookmarks to visit then.

  • June 3, 2020 by 
    Tanisha Helen

    You could certainly see your skills in the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

  • September 27, 2020 by

    I love this and it shares a lot of information that a CHW can share with the community. I just watched the ENSLAVED by Samuel Jackson and greatly appreciate the history. I am in pursuit of my own historical background in the Gullah land Thank you

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