Sanger’s cohorts within the BCFA sought to attract black leadership. They succeeded. The list of black leaders who made up BCFA’s National Advisory Council reads like a "who’s who" among black Americans. To name a few:
Claude A. Barnett, director, Associated Negro Press, Chicago
Michael J. Bent, M.D., Meharry Medical School, Nashville
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, president, National Council of Negro Women, Washington, D.C., special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority groups, and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach
Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, cum laude graduate of Tufts, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha (the nation’s oldest black sorority)k, Washington, D.C.
Charles S. Johnson, president, Fisk University, Nashville
Eugene Kinckle Jones, executive secretary, National Urban League, New York
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York
Bishop David H. Sims, pastor, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
Arthur Spingarn, president, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Even with this impressive list, Sanger ran into resistance when she tried to present a birth control exhibit at the 1940 American Negro Exposition, a fair that traces the progress blacks have made since the Emancipation Proclamation, in Chicago. After inviting BCFA to display its exhibit, the Exposition’s board later canceled, citing "last minute changes in floor space."
Sanger did not buy this and issued a statement urging public protest. "This has come as a complete surprise," said Sanger, "since the Federation undertook preparation of the exhibit upon an express invitation from a member of the Exposition board." She said the cancellation resulted from "concerted action on the part of representatives of the Roman Catholic Church." She even accused the church of threatening officials with the withholding of promised federal and state funds needed to hold the Exposition.
Her statement mentioned BCFA prepared the exhibit in consultation with its National (Negro) Advisory Council, and it illustrated "the need for birth control as a public health measure." She said the objective was to demonstrate how birth control would "improve the welfare of the Negro population," noting the maternal death rate among black mothers was nearly 50 percent higher, and the child death rate was more than one-third greater than the white community.
At Sanger’s urging, protesters of the cancellation sent letters to Attorney Wendall E. Green, vice chairman of the Afra-Merican Emancipation Exposition Commission (sponsor of the Exposition), requesting he investigate. Green denied there was any threat or pressure to withhold funds needed to finance the Exposition. Further, he said the Exposition commission (of Illinois) "unanimously passed a resolution," which read in part: "That in the promotion, conduct and accomplishment of the objectives (of the Exposition) there must be an abiding spirit to create goodwill toward all people." He added that since the funds for the Exposition " came from citizens of all races and creeds, any exhibit in conflict with the known convictions of any religious group contravenes the spirit of the resolution," which seemed to support Catholic opposition. The commission upheld the ban on the exhibit.
"Better Health for 13,000,000"
The propaganda of the Negro Project was that birth control meant better health. So on this premise, the BCFA designed two southern Negro Project "demonstration programs" to show "how medically-supervised birth control integrated into existing public health services could improve the general welfare of Negroes, and to initiate a nationwide educational program."
The BCFA opened the first clinic at the Bethlehem Center in urban Nashville, Tennessee (where blacks constituted only 25 percent of the population), on February 13, 1940. They extended the work to the Social Services Center of Fisk University (a historically black college) on July 23, 1940. This location was especially significant because of its proximity to Meharry Medical School, which trained more than 50 percent of black physicians I the United States.
An analysis of the income of the Nashville group revealed that "no family, regardless of size, had an income over $15 a week. The service obviously reached the income group for which it was designed," indicating the project’s tar get. The report claimed to have brought "to light serious diseases and making possible their treatment, … [and] that 55 percent [354 of the 638] of the patients prescribed birth control methods used it consistently and successfully." However, the report presented "no definite figures … to demonstrate the extent of community improvement."
The BCFA opened the second clinic on May 1, 1940, in rural Berkeley County, South Carolina, under the supervision of Dr. Robert E. Seibels, chairman of the Committee on Maternal Welfare of the South Carolina Medical Association. BCFA chose this site in part "because leaders in the state were particularly receptive to the experiment. South Carolina had been the second state to make child spacing a part of its state public health program after a survey of the state’s maternal deaths showed that 25 percent occurred among mothers known to be physically unfit for pregnancy." Again, the message went out: Birth controlnot better prenatal carereduced maternal and infant mortality.
Although Berkeley County’s population was 70 percent black, the clinic received criticism that members of this group were "overwhelmingly in the majority." Seibels assured Claude Barnett that this was not the case. "We have … simply given our help to those who were willing to receive it, and these usually are Negroes," he said.
While religious convictions significantly influenced the Nashville patients’ view of birth control, people in Berkeley County had "no religious prejudice against birth control. But the attitude that treatment of any disease was ‘against nature’ was in the air." Comparing the results of the two sites, "it is seen that the immediate receptivity to the demonstration was at the outset higher in the rural area. " However, "the final total success was lower [in the rural area]." However, in Berkeley, "stark poverty was even more in evidence, and bad roads, bad weather and ignorance proved powerful counter forces [to the contraceptive programs." After 18 months, the Berkeley program closed.
The report indicated that, contrary to expectations, the lives of black patients serviced by the clinics did not improve dramatically from birth control. Two beliefs stood in the way: Some blacks likened birth control to abortion and others regarded it as "inherently immoral." However, "when thrown against the total pictures of the awareness on the part of Negro leaders of the improved conditions, … and their opportunities to even better conditions under Planned Parenthood, … the obstacles to the program are greatly outweighed," said Dr. Dorothy Ferebee.
A hint of eugenic flavor seasoned Ferebee’s speech: "The future program [of Planned Parenthood] should center around more education in the field through the work of a professional Negro worker, because those of who believe that the benefits of Planned Parenthood as a vital key to the elimination of human waste must reach the entire population [emphasis added]." She peppered her speech with the importance of "Negro professionals, fully integrated into the staff, … who could interpret the program and objectives to [other blacks] in the normal course of day-to-day contacts; could break down fallacious attitudes and beliefs and elements of distrust; could inspire the confidence of the group; and would not be suspect of the intent to eliminate the race [emphasis added]."
Sanger even managed to lure the prominentbut hesitantblack minister J. T. Braun, editor in chief of the National Baptist Convention’s Sunday School Publishing Board in Nashville, Tennessee, into her deceptive web. Braun confessed to Sanger that "the very idea of such a thing [birth control] has always held the greatest hatred and contempt in my mind. … I am hesitant to give my full endorsement of this idea, until you send me, perhaps, some more convincing literature on the subject. Sanger happily complied. She sent Braun the Federal Council of Churches’ Marriage and Home Committee pamphlet praised by Bishop Sims (another member of the National Advisory Council), assuring him that: "There are some people who believe that birth control is an attempt to dictate to families how many children to have. Nothing could be further from the truth."
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