Margaret Sanger Opens the First Legal Birth Control Clinic in Harlem, NY

In 1929, 10 years before Sanger created the Negro Project, the American Birth Control League laid the groundwork for a clinic in Harlem, a largely black section of New York City. It was the dawn of the Great Depression, and for blacks that meant double the misery. Blacks faced harsher conditions of desperation and privation because of widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. From the ABCL’s perspective, Harlem was the ideal place for this “experimental clinic,” which officially opened on November 21, 1930. Many blacks looked to escape their adverse circumstances and therefore did not recognize the eugenic undercurrent of the clinic. The clinic relied on the generosity of private foundations to remain in business. In addition to being thought of as “inferior” and disproportionately represented in the underclass, according to the clinic’s own files used to justify its “work,” blacks in Harlem:

  • were segregated in an over-populated area (224,760 of 330,000 of greater New York’s         population lived in Harlem during the late 1920s and 1930s);
  • comprised 12 percent of New York City’s population, but accounted for 18.4 percent of New York City’s unemployment;
  • had an infant mortality rate of 101 per 1000 births, compared to 56 among whites;
  • had a death rate from tuberculosis–237 per 100,000–that was highest in central Harlem, out of all of New York City.

Although the clinic served whites as well as blacks, it “was established for the benefit of the colored people.” Sanger wrote this in a letter to Dr. W. E. Burghardt DuBois, one of the day’s most influential blacks. A sociologist and author, he helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 to improve the living conditions of black Americans.

That blacks endured extreme prejudice and discrimination, which contributed greatly to their plight, seemed to further justify restricting their numbers. Many believed the solution lay in reducing reproduction. Sanger suggested the answer to poverty and degradation lay in smaller numbers of blacks. She convinced black civic groups in Harlem of the “benefits” of birth control, under the cloak of “better health” (i.e., reduction of maternal and infant death; child spacing) and “family planning.” So with their cooperation, and the endorsement of The Amsterdam News (a prominent black newspaper), Sanger established the Harlem branch of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. The ABCL told the community birth control was the answer to their predicament.

Sanger shrewdly used the influence of prominent blacks to reach the masses with this message. She invited DuBois and a host of Harlem’s leading blacks, including physicians, social workers, ministers and journalists, to form an advisory council to help direct the clinic “so that our work in birth control will be a constructive force in the community.” She knew the importance of having black professionals on the advisory board and in the clinic; she knew blacks would instinctively suspect whites of wanting to decrease their numbers. She would later use this knowledge to implement the Negro Project.

Sanger convinced the community so well that Harlem’s largest black church, the Abyssinian Baptist Church, held a mass meeting featuring Sanger as the speaker. But that event received criticism. At least one “very prominent minister of a denomination other than Baptist” spoke out against Sanger. Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., pastor of Abyssinian Baptist, “received adverse criticism” from the (unnamed) minister who was “surprised that he’d allow that awful woman in his church.”

Grace Congregational Church hosted a debate on birth control. Proponents argued birth control was necessary to regulate births in proportion to the family’s income; spacing births would help mothers recover physically and fathers financially; physically strong and mentally sound babies would result; and incidences of communicable diseases would decrease.

Opponents contended that as a minority group blacks needed to increase rather than decrease and that they needed an equal distribution of wealth to improve their status. In the end, the debate judges decided the proponents were more persuasive: Birth control would improve the status of blacks. Still, there were others who equated birth control with abortion and therefore considered it immoral.

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 ills–not the least of which were racism–Sanger 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.

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