The Mississippi Health Project was a Great Depression–era program of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), an African American sorority, that brought free medical care to poor women. The program was a brainchild of AKA president Ida L. Jackson, a Mississippi native. Jackson, a schoolteacher in Oakland, California, had initially hoped to establish a summer education program in the rural South to help illiterates and make amends for the poor education provided by segregated schools. However, the AKA volunteers who arrived to teach in Mississippi in 1934 discovered that many poor blacks were too sick to attend class regularly and too malnourished to concentrate on lessons. In response, AKA designated funds for a health program to be headed by an AKA member, Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee. A staff physician at Howard and Tufts Medical Schools, Ferebee specialized in obstetrics.
The program initially sought to immunize three thousand Delta children against diphtheria and smallpox and only incidentally to provide medical help to anyone who came to a clinic. Ferebee planned to hold the clinic six days a week for six weeks at the Saints Industrial School in Holmes County as well as to offer temporary clinics in small towns for those who could not travel to Lexington. The original staff included Ferebee and sixteen AKA volunteers as well as two public health nurses from Tuskegee University in Alabama. Holmes County health officer Dr. C. J. Vaughn provided two more nurses and, more importantly, official permission to proceed.
Unable to obtain seats on a Jim Crow train from Washington, D.C., the women drove to Mississippi, providing them with a fleet of eight automobiles that proved useful when thirteen of the fourteen plantation owners in Holmes County refused to allow their tenants to visit clinics on the grounds that they were run by communist agitators. Refusing to be dissuaded, AKA organized the nation’s first mobile health clinic. Nevertheless, many sharecroppers were too intimidated to visit the clinic.
In 1936 the project moved to friendlier Bolivar County. As in Holmes, many residents had never received proper medical care, knew little about the prevention of disease, and relied on folk medicine. The sharecroppers not only received immunizations but also learned about modern health care practices, personal hygiene, and sanitation. In 1937 dental care was added to the program. AKA also offered prenatal and well-baby care along with screenings for syphilis and malaria, but malnutrition remained a concern. In 1940 AKA began a traveling kitchen to teach the preparation of nutritious meals. The project ultimately benefited fifteen thousand black Mississippians before it ended in 1941 as a casualty of gasoline rationing during World War II.
- Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Papers, Mississippi Health Project, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Washington, D.C.
- Dorothy Boulding Ferebee Papers, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Washington, D.C.
- Marjorie H. Parker, Alpha Kappa Alpha: 60 Years of Service (1996)
- Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, interview by Merze Tate (28, 31 December 1979), Black Women Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard University, website, http://guides.library.harvard.edu/schlesinger_bwohp
- Tom Ward, Journal of Mississippi History (Fall 2001)