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Vol. LXII, No. 6
March 19, 2010
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Howard Professor Traces Arc of Black Economic Empowerment

On the front page...

NIH’s observance of Black History Month on Feb. 18 gained instant authority when Prof. Russell L. Adams of Howard University was invited to speak on the topic of black economic empowerment. The son of a successful Georgia farmer, Adams, 79, has been alive for a generous portion of the timeline he traced, and his own recollections of growing up in the land of cotton gave him plenty of chances to illustrate his thesis.

Currently emeritus professor and former chair of Howard’s department of Afro-American studies, Adams remembered growing up in the 1940s in Brooks County, Ga.

“The medical population was thin for people of color when I was a young man,” he recalled. “The doctor covered three counties and he came to our town [Quitman, Ga.] once a week.”

Continued...


  Prof. Russell L. Adams  
  Prof. Russell L. Adams  

Adams’s grandmother was a midwife and Adams remembers his father, “who had an Eliot Ness-style Buick, with running boards that you had to step up to reach,” ferrying her across farm fields to a remote locale where she delivered babies.

“In Brooks County, the only nurse was the wife of the local undertaker—it was kind of a strange arrangement,” he quipped in a talk that mixed anecdote, sociology and quantitative science.

Back then, a black physician who wanted to refer a patient to the hospital had to have a white sponsor. And Georgia would not educate a black student who wanted to pursue an advanced degree; Adams himself had to go out of state, to the University of Chicago, for his graduate studies, although the state did pay a portion of his tuition.

Adams argues that three factors were crucial to the establishment of black economic empowerment: urbanization (“Coming to town was a big thing,” he noted. Educational opportunities in cities were far more abundant than down south, “where the cotton was too thick.”), the civil rights movement and post-World War II job opportunities.

Adams (fourth from l) is joined by others involved with OEODM’s Black History Month observance, including (from l) Jesse Burnett, Black Employment Program manager; Melanie Keller, executive officer at the Center for Scientific Review; Dr. Helena Mishoe, associate director for minority health affairs, NHLBI; Hilda Dixon, OEODM deputy director;
and Craig Stewart, research biologist, NIMH.
Adams (fourth from l) is joined by others involved with OEODM’s Black History Month observance, including (from l) Jesse Burnett, Black Employment Program manager; Melanie Keller, executive officer at the Center for Scientific Review; Dr. Helena Mishoe, associate director for minority health affairs, NHLBI; Hilda Dixon, OEODM deputy director; and Craig Stewart, research biologist, NIMH.

Also important was the 1890 law that established land-grant colleges in the United States, said Adams. “That’s where you got your A&T’s and A&I’s and A&M’s. This is where the initial foundation of blacks in the health field was laid, beyond mojo and folklore and roots.”

Adams couldn’t help but note that his maternal grandmother, who practiced root medicine, lived to age 96.

“In the Deep South, black public schools did little in science, except a little biology and chemistry,” he said. “It was not encouraged. You could learn some agricultural stuff, but the sciences were not sufficiently pushed.”

In addition to the land-grant schools, “private, church-related colleges and HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) did most of the pre-med training.” Adams numbered Howard, Fisk, Talladega and his own alma mater, Morehouse, as among leaders in encouraging black scientists. He recalled an anatomy department at Morehouse so keen on acquiring animals for research that “cats were a rare thing walking in the city of Atlanta.”

The G.I. Bill, he said, “was very important for males. Enrollment exploded at colleges. It placed tens of thousands of young black men in college. In fact, Morehouse survived due to veteran enrollment.”

Black servicemen were exposed to mechanical learning, Adams noted. “World War II took black women from the kitchen, and from housekeeping work and put them in factories. There was a tremendous shift in how the black community saw itself at work, and as individuals…The mindset was greatly different in the pre-war period versus the post-war era. People felt an investment in their country. Deference disappeared. A sense of ‘can do’ and ‘show us’ took over as blacks learned to manipulate the world.”

The civil rights movement “further accelerated the increase in [employment] options,” Adams observed.

A trained social scientist, Adams presented data on black professional achievement that, while impressive, is not nearly enough to count as real power, he said. “There are 17,313 African-American physicians, 64,000 people teaching college, 26,000 CEOs, including Xerox, and 33,900 lawyers. But there are 25,000 white lawyers in D.C. alone. K Street is like a beehive!”

While his own institution, Howard, boasts a long-revered medical school and hospital, currently hosting some 150 physicians (“Probably the most in one spot in the U.S.,” he said), “there used to be five or six other black hospitals in St. Louis, Chicago and North Carolina, but they are no longer there.”

He continued quantifying: 500+ black physicists, more than 1,000 engineers, 1,000 physical scientists. “Howard has a large percentage of these people,” he said. His own curiosity prompted him to ask black physicians at Howard why they chose the profession. “Ninety-eight percent said it was the prestige,” he reported.

Adams acknowledges that a complex interaction between “policy, pecuniary considerations and people” governs black economic prospects, but lamented, “There is no Sloan-Kettering, or Mayo Clinic or NIH in the black community. Black empowerment is now at what I would call the ‘black presence’ stage. A critical mass is being reached. We are starting to have some say about policy, and can exert persuasion through membership in a variety of professional societies and associations that are not black-run.”

He concluded, “It will probably take another generation for power to become manifest. Gaining power and visibility will take awhile, but we have made progress from the era of the granny in the white apron. Those 17,000 physicians represent potential power. Black economic empowerment is a gradual process.”

The Black History Month observance, held in Wilson Hall and sponsored by the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, also marked the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League, one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the U.S. NIHRecord Icon

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