Monday, December 23, 2013

Ida L. Jackson and the Mississippi Health Project

Health care has been the topic of much debate in America in recent years, but the issue of providing adequate health care is nothing new, especially in the rural South. In the 1930s, a prominent social organization took the issue head-on in an effort to bring medical care to the poorest and more neglected of Mississippi’s citizens. Founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1908, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is the oldest African American Greek organization in the United States. In 1934, Alpha Kappa Alpha sponsored the Mississippi Health Project to bring primary medical care to rural blacks. Members of the sorority financed, designed, and implemented the project, which was active for two to six weeks every summer from 1935 to 1941. The Mississippi Health Project was the brainchild of a Mississippi native and California resident, Dr. Ida Jackson.

Ida Louise Jackson was the only daughter in a large family (she had seven older brothers) and was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Before she was born, her family fled Louisiana after a court ruled in her father’s favor in a land dispute and he was targeted by a lynch mob. With the mob in pursuit, Pompey Jackson, a former slave, and his family escaped with the help of sympathetic whites and boarded a barge which carried them to safety on the Vicksburg side of the river. There, another family provided food and shelter until the patriarch of the Jackson family could build a home. Ida was born in 1902 and attended private schools until the sixth grade, when she entered Vicksburg’s public schools. She graduated from Cherry Street High School in 1914 (at the age of twelve) and then enrolled at Rust College and at New Orleans University, where she graduated in 1917. With a diploma in hand, Ida Jackson moved west to California (where several her brothers had settled) to become a teacher, but she was denied the opportunity because she was “unqualified.” So, she returned to college at U.C. Berkeley and then Columbia University, where she earned a doctorate. In 1926, after years of applying for a position, Ida Jackson (above) became the first African American public school teacher in California. Despite her qualifications, many of Oakland’s white teachers protested by marching on the administration building. Despite the protests, Ida Jackson was hired (if only at first as a substitute teacher) and excelled in her profession. She was later licensed as a school administrator and served as Dean of Women at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and was involved in the formation of the National Council of Negro Women. She died in 1996 and is buried in Oakland.

While at U.C. Berkeley, Jackson helped organize the Rho chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha and in 1934 became the national president of the sorority. Although she had moved to California, she had not forgotten her native state of Mississippi. Concerned about the poor living conditions of blacks in the rural, segregated South, Jackson convinced members of the sorority to host an extension course for black teachers in Holmes County. This effort proved a failure, however, as health conditions were so poor that educational programs were useless until those conditions were improved. As a result, Alpha Kappa Alpha appropriated $2,500 for a health program the following summer. Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee, a member of the sorority, was appointed the project's medical director. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Dr. Ferebee (above left) was a graduate of the Tufts University Medical School and was a practicing physician in obstetrics and gynecology. Initially staffed by Dr. Ferebee and volunteers, the first medical clinic was headquartered at the Saints Industrial School in Lexington (associated with the Church of God in Christ). The clinic met with limited success, however, because many black sharecroppers were too poor to travel to the clinic and many whites opposed the project altogether. To meet these challenges, Dr. Ferebee decided to take the medical care to the plantations. As a result, members of the medical team began traveling by car into the Mississippi Delta to provide care and treatment to black sharecroppers.

The next year the program moved to Bolivar County and headquartered its volunteers in the all-black town of Mound Bayou. While Bolivar County’s 60,000 black citizens suffered from the same generally poor health conditions of their neighbors in Holmes County, Bolivar County had two distinct advantages: the presence of a viable, black middle class in Mound Bayou and a white public health officer enthusiastic about making the program work. Over the project’s seven-year span – including six summers in Bolivar County - over 15,000 persons were treated in Alpha Kappa Alpha’s mobile clinics. Forty-nine women from the sorority volunteered at least one summer to serve as medical missionaries in the Mississippi Delta, and Dr. Ferebee directed every one of the seven programs. The project drew wide praise from blacks and whites alike and left a lasting impression on the county by raising the awareness for improved health care. As an example, when the program began in Bolivar County in 1935, the county had only one nurse; by 1942, the county health department employed nine public health nurses as well as a full office staff. United States Surgeon General Thomas Parran was so impressed with the AKA’s Mississippi Health Project that he characterized it as “one of the greatest jobs of volunteer public health work” that he had ever witnessed. The program also helped foster cooperative biracial efforts in the community, especially among the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha and white Methodist women’s groups.

The Mississippi Health Project ended in 1942 due to gas rationing brought about by World War II. It was not revived when the war ended, but the efforts of Alpha Kappa Alpha made a lasting impact on those the program served and is still remembered today.

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Ida L. Jackson:
(2) Ferebee:
(3) Clinic:
(4) AKA:
(5) Mound Bayou:

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