artwork from The 1619 Project

Units July 28, 2023

Black Women and Their Bodies: How Slavery Laid the Groundwork for Healthcare Inequities for Women of Color

Lesson Summary: Students examine how contemporary racial inequities in health services and outcomes, especially for Black women, are rooted in slavery. They then create presentations that make connections between contemporary issues in healthcare and history. Downloads: Unit resources

This unit was created by the Hanover High School Social Studies team as part of the 2022 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across approximately two to three weeks, or four 80-minute lessons plus a final project.


Students will be able to…

  • Engage in class discussions that focus on challenging concepts.
  • Analyze historical documents to draw conclusions about the legacy of matrilineal slavery and its implications for the expansion of the slave economy.
  • Examine the contradiction in white doctors using enslaved women’s bodies for medical experimentation, while at the same time relying on enslaved women’s medical expertise in midwifery.
  • Argue how stereotypes and abuse that stem from the legacy of slavery have had lasting effects on Black women’s advancement, as well as healthcare practices and outcomes.  
  • Articulate forms of advocacy and resistance to abuse and stereotyping that people of color have practiced.

Enduring Understandings

  • Inequities in healthcare services and outcomes based on gender and race can be traced to the legacy of slavery.
  • Fallacies about Black bodies founded during enslavement were used to justify racial subjugation and mistreatment. 
  • Black women’s bodies, as well as their traditional knowledge of midwifery, were employed in developing the modern field of gynecology. 
  • Much of recorded history is from the perspective of white males; rewriting historical events to reflect the perspective of women offers an important correction to the historical record.
  • People of color engage in advocacy and resistance to injustice and stereotyping.

Essential Questions

  • Why is it important to engage in a specific focus on Black women’s experiences in the context of American History?
  • How were Black women’s role in slavery unique due to their race, sex, and reproductive potential? 
  • What does slavery have to do with healthcare inequities in the 21st century?
  • How do stereotypes of Black bodies developed during slavery continue to influence contemporary medical practices and outcomes?
  • How did enslaved women’s experiences factor into the story of reproductive research?
  • Does shifting the historical narrative to reflect Black women’s stories change the way we understand the history of healthcare?

Unit Overview

This series of lessons is part of a broader course on Black women’s history, but can also be incorporated into a more general U.S. History course. Black Women in American History examines a diversity of Black women’s experiences, focusing on how these women engaged in freedom struggles while simultaneously defining their identities as women, wives, mothers, leaders, workers, and citizens. Studying the history of Black women in this country invites students to grapple with the complexity of our shared history.

The unit Black Women and Their Bodies: How Slavery Laid the Groundwork for Healthcare Inequities for Women of Color focuses more specifically on how the institution of slavery enabled the white medical establishment to develop fallacies related to the Black body that persist in healthcare to this day, and manifest in inequitable access, treatment, and outcomes, particularly for Black women. White physicians in the early days of the republic experimented on enslaved women for advancements in medicine and science, particularly in regard to obstetric and gynecological practices. Revisiting these histories from the perspective of Black women reorients the historical narrative and sheds light on these women’s important contributions and agency.

This unit will begin with background on matrilineal slavery and its legacy. Students will dissect primary documents, such as legislation codifying matrilineal slavery and slave auction records, in order to analyze how the commodification of Black women perpetuated the institution of slavery. Students will explore the concept of racial cognitive dissonance through the stories of J. Marion Sims and the women, Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, whose bodies were used in experimentation, but also served as midwives for Sims’ medical practice. Students will view a contemporary art installation that reorients this history towards the perspective of women, and will end by studying contemporary legacies—in both the 20th and 21st centuries—of this history and how it has manifested in disparities in contemporary healthcare services and outcomes.

Performance Task

Students will create presentations in which they analyze how current inequities in medical practices and outcomes for women of color today can be traced to slavery. Students could also choose to examine how the narrative around medical racism is shifting and what evidence suggests this shift.


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