Racial Assignment and the American Pediatric Crisis over Black Newborn Skin during the Jim Crow Era

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:40 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Stacey Pamela Patton, Morgan State University
Birth is an overlooked moment in the history of race and medicine. This paper will examine how American pediatricians became both anxious and intrigued by the ontological indeterminacy of skin color among blacks at birth.  It will also explore how the birth certificate, which required race to be recorded, became a new “progressive” technology that was seized by white supremacists. While the history of Jim Crow often focuses on the legal, economic, social, and political oppression that black people experienced, my paper shows how race began in birthing rooms. More explicitly, this paper will move beyond the historiography on the study of children’s bodies and their distinct health needs and link the origin of pediatrics as a profession to the national governmental, medical obsession with classifying black children as a "race." The exposure of babies to the dehumanizing logic of race reveals how Jim Crow was far more extensive and damaging to black children than segregated schools and water fountains would suggest.


Using pediatric journals and news stories of “changeling babies,” this paper documents a series of seemingly coincidental occurrences surrounding this moment of birth: the invention of pediatrics in the late 19th century, the usurping of black midwives’ control over black birth, early 20th century birth registration campaigns led by Virginia’s first health registrar Walter Ashby Plecker, and the invention of the birth certificate and its use as a racial identity document. Pediatricians’ obsessive drive to explain why black infants were born with white or pink skin, even as shocking black infant mortality rates begged for their attention, contributed to the social engineering of race and efforts to prevent ambiguous-looking babies from growing up to pass themselves off as white and subvert the Jim Crow system.  

<< Previous Presentation | Next Presentation