Eventually, the Urban League took control of the clinic, and indication the black community had become ensnared in Sanger’s labyrinth.
Birth Control as a Solution
The Harlem clinic and ensuing birth control debate opened dialogue among black about how best to improve their disadvantageous position. Some viewed birth control as a viable solution: High reproduction, the believed, meant prolonged poverty and degradation. Desperate for change, others began to accept the "rationale" of birth control. A few embraced eugenics. The June 1932 edition of The Birth Control Review, called "The Negro Number," featured a series of articles written by blacks on the "virtues" of birth control.
The editorial posed this question: "Shall they go in for quantity or quality in children? Shall they bring children into the world to enrich the undertakers, the physicians and furnish work for social workers and jailers, or shall they produce children who are going to be an asset to the group and American society?" The answer: "Most [blacks], especially women, would choose quality … if they only knew how."
DuBois, in his article "Black Folk and Birth Control, " noted the "inevitable clash of ideals between those Negroes who were striving to improve their economic position and those whose religious faith made the limitation of children a sin." He criticized the "mass of ignorant Negroes" who bred "carelessly and disastrously so that the increase among [them] … is from that part of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly."
DuBois called for a "more liberal attitude" among black churches. He said they were open to "intelligent propaganda of any sort, and the American Birth Control League and other agencies ought to get their speakers before church congregations and their arguments in the Negro newspapers [emphasis added]."
Charles S. Johnson, Fisk University’s first black president, wrote "eugenic discrimination" was necessary for blacks. He said the high maternal and infant mortality rates, along with diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria and venereal infection, made it difficult for large families to adequately sustain themselves.
Further, "the status of Negroes as marginal workers, their confinement to the lowest paid branches of industry, the necessity for the labors of mothers, as well as children, to balance meager budgets, are factors [that] emphasize the need for lessening the burden not only for themselves, but of society, which must provide the supplementary support in the form of relief." Johnson later served on the National Advisory Council to the BCFA, becoming integral to the Negro Project.
Writer Walter A. Terpenning described bringing a black child into a hostile world as "pathetic." In his article "God’s Chillun," he wrote:
The birth of a colored child, even to parents who can give it adequate support, is pathetic in view of the unchristian and undemocratic treatment likely to be accorded it at the hands of a predominantly white community, and the denial of choice in propagation to this unfortunate class is nothing less than barbarous [emphasis added].
Terpenning considered birth control for black as "the more humane provision" and "more eugenic" than among whites. He felt birth control information should have first been disseminated among blacks rather than the white upper crust. He failed to look at the problematic attitudes and behavior of society and how they suppressed blacks. He offered no solutions to the injustice and vile racism that blacks endured.
Sadly, DuBois’ words of black churches being "open to intelligent propaganda" proved prophetic. Black pastors invited Sanger to speak to their congregations. Black publications, like The Afro-American and The Chicago Defender, featured her writings. Rather than attacking the root causes of maternal and infant deaths, diseases ,poverty, unemployment and a host of other social illsnot the least of which were racismSanger pushed birth control. To many, it was better for blacks not to be born rather than endure such a harsh existence.
Against this setting, Sanger charmed the black community’s most distinguished leaders into accepting her plan, which was designed to their own detriment. She peddled her wares wrapped in pretty packages labeled "better health" and "family planning." No one could deny the benefits of better health, being financially ready to raise children, or spacing one’s children. However, the solution to the real issues affecting blacks did not lay in reducing their numbers. It lay in attacking forces in society that hindered their progress. Most importantly, one had to discern Sanger’s motive behind her push for birth control in the community. It was not an altruistic one.
Web of Deceit
Prior to 1939, Sanger’s "outreach to the black community was largely limited to her Harlem clinic and speaking at black churches." Her vision for "the reproductive practices of black Americans" expanded after the January 1939 merger of the Clinical Research Bureau and the American Birth Control League to form the Birth Control Federation of America. She selected Dr. Clarence J. Gamble, of the soap-manufacturing company Procter and Gamble, to be the BCFA regional director of the South.
Gamble wrote a memorandum in November 1939 entitled "Suggestions for the Negro Project," in which he recognized that "black leaders might regard birth control as an extermination plot." He suggested black leaders to be placed in positions where it would appear they were in charge. Yet Sanger’s reply reflects Gamble’s ambivalence about having blacks in authoritative positions:
I note that you doubt it worthwhile to employ a full-time Negro physician. It seems to me from my experience … that, while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors, they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table, which means their ignorance, superstitions and doubts. They do not do this with white people and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and … knowledge, which … will have far-reaching results among the colored people.
Another project director lamented:
I wonder if Southern Darkies can ever be entrusted with … a clinic. Our experience causes us to doubt their ability to work except under white supervision.
Sanger knew blacks were religious peopleand how useful ministers would be to her project. She wrote in the same letter:
The minister’s work is also important and he should be trained, perhaps by the Federation as to our ideals and the goal that we hope to reach. We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members [emphasis added].
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