This year marks the 5th anniversary of Black Maternal Health Week. This week brings light to the disheartening disparities of Black birthing families that are most impacted by the US maternal health crisis while uplifting solutions that center their needs. The latest CDC data reports widening maternal mortality disparities between 2019 and 2020 resulting from the twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19.  

An under resourced, but potentially powerful catalyst in tackling this issue are Black institutions, specifically Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

For over 180 years Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have provided incubators for Black students to thrive, fostering social and cultural identity, academic excellence, and world leaders. HBCUs always have been a site of resistance and liberation, educating former enslaved people and their descendants and galvanizing movements to fight injustices against Black people in the US and globally. 

Ideally, HBCUs are well-positioned to lead the charge to improve Black maternal health by diversifying the workforce and training midwives, doulas, and public health professionals. Midwifery models of care have been shown to improve maternal health outcomes, decrease medical interventions, increase breast feeding rates, and improve satisfaction of birth.  

However, out of 105 HBCUs there is only one accredited School of Public Health – Jackson State University. A “School of Public Health” is a prerequisite to have an accredited maternal and child health program, which leads to a lack of maternal and child health programs at HBCUs. There is not even one HBCU with an accredited midwifery program. Tuskegee University’s program closed in 1945 and the last HBCU that provided training closed in 2007.  

Funding plays a huge role in this. In the same article, Dr. Monica McLemore, Director of Birth Equity Research Scholars in the National Birth Equity Collaborative, explains that the accreditation process alone can take three to five years and the risk with limited funding and support is a lot for an HBCU to take on. HBCUs could lead that charge in Black systems of care but are cut at their knees because of structural racism that underfunds and divests from HBCUs, keeping them from producing leaders in maternal and child health. 

Campus climate also plays a role. Some HBCUs are founded on conservative and Christian values that also deprive students of reproductive health information and care. A 2020 article from The Nation points out that only 12 HBCUs have Planned Parenthood chapters due to pushback and challenges to establish active chapters on campuses. Black women and girls at more conservative HBCUs are fighting for their own reproductive care and justice while also struggling to build maternal and child healthcare programs at their schools.  

Read the full article about Black maternal health leaders by Kanika A. Harris at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.