Black Leaders Who Have Shaped Public Health

Throughout February, many have taken the time to celebrate Black leaders both throughout history and in the present day. Considering the many efforts to promote resilience, self-care, and wellness via public health approaches, join ReCAST in recognizing several Black public health pioneers whose legacies still impact the work surrounding health equity, youth violence prevention, and racial equity.

Thereasea Clark Elder

In 1962, Thereasea Clark Elder became the first Black nurse to join the Mecklenburg County Health Department. Throughout her career and afterwards, Ms. Elder fiercely advocated for the health and wellbeing of Black communities. Through a holistic approach, Ms. Elder championed health equity, civil rights, and community development.1 In honor of her work and legacy, Village HeartBEAT, a program within the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department, established the Thereasea Elder Community Health Leadership Academy to train and support Community Health Ambassadors in local faith communities.2

Deborah Prothrow-Stith

After earning her medical degree from Harvard University Medical School in 1979, Dr. Prothrow-Stith witnessed how high rates of gun violence had a detrimental impact on youth in Boston.3 Since then, Dr. Prothrow-Stith dedicated much of her work to youth violence prevention and the notion that “violence should be seen as a public health problem and a social ‘disease’ rather than a criminal justice problem.”4 Dr. Prothrow-Stith’s influence can still be seen today: in 2020, the Mecklenburg County Public Health Department declared violence as a public health crisis and continues to use public health approaches to address it.

Sherman A. James

Combining his backgrounds in psychology and epidemiology, Dr. James pioneered research related to his “John Henryism” hypothesis; the notion that premature deaths of African Americans is connected to prolonged exposure to stress from discrimination and racism. His theory and continued research efforts have been foundational to understanding the social determinants of health and the impact of social environments on Black health outcomes.5,6