Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation

Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation

Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation

Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation


For most of the first half of the twentieth century, tuberculosis ranked among the top three causes of mortality among urban African Americans. Often afflicting an entire family or large segments of a neighborhood, the plague of TB was as mysterious as it was fatal. Samuel Kelton Roberts Jr. examines how individuals and institutions-black and white, public and private-responded to the challenges of tuberculosis in a segregated society.

Reactionary white politicians and health officials promoted "racial hygiene" and sought to control TB through Jim Crow quarantines, Roberts explains. African Americans, in turn, protested the segregated, overcrowded housing that was the true root of the tuberculosis problem. Moderate white and black political leadership reconfigured definitions of health and citizenship, extending some rights while constraining others. Meanwhile, those who suffered with the disease-as its victims or as family and neighbors-made the daily adjustments required by the devastating effects of the "white plague."

Exploring the politics of race, reform, and public health, Infectious Fear uses the tuberculosis crisis to illuminate the limits of racialized medicine and the roots of modern health disparities. Ultimately, it reveals a disturbing picture of the United States' health history while offering a vision of a more democratic future.


An undertaker who within the last ten years has
buried many of the ten thousand of our people
who sleep in Southview cemetery recently made
a remark to me that set me to thinking. I give
it to you tonight with the hope that it may have
the same effect upon you. “You have no idea,” he
said, “how many people are dying from the lack
of sympathy.” This is expert testimony, and we
cannot reject it

Rev. H. H. Proctor, “The Need of Friendly
Visitation,” 1897

The chief interest in the South is social
supremacy, therefore prejudice manifests itself
most strongly against even an imaginary
approach to social contact

Fannie Barrier Williams, “A Northern
Negro’s Autobiography,” 1904

In late September 1920, the case of Alice Barnes and her family was referred by the Baltimore Family Welfare Association to the Henry Watson Children’s Aid Society (HWCAS). Soon thereafter, the HWCAS sent its agent, S. S. Lawrence, to Barnes’s residence, a rented room in a “two story, six room house on a broad, smoothly paved street, in a rather nice section of the city” in which Barnes and her two-year-old daughter, Eleanor, had lived for nearly two months. Alice Barnes was aware that she was dying and wanted . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.