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On the Feminists for Choice blog, Serena Freewomyn posted “Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?” The post offers a quick look at a topic much in the blogosphere, and while we don’t entirely agree with the author’s analysis, it at least adds some context to the debate .  The comments posted on the article are just as interesting as the blog itself.

In the interest of adding to the conversation, we’d like to provide a bit more information about Sanger and the Negro Project.

The Negro Project was an attempt to empower the black community to rise out of poverty through the use of birth control. The project was widely supported by black leaders, including Mary McLeod Bethune, W. E. B. DuBois, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Sanger proposed this project because she wanted to help  “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a ‘caste’ system that operates as an added weight upon their efforts to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.”

– Margaret Sanger to Mary Lasker on July 10, 1939. [Source]

Sanger was targeting the black community because, at the time, most of that community was at a disadvantage. The racism that wove through American history made it consistently more difficult for people of color to get ahead was the ‘caste’ system that left the black community, “notoriously underprivileged and handicapped”  according to Sanger. In conceiving this project Sanger wasn’t trying to use birth control as a means of getting rid of people of color; instead, she wanted the Negro Project to give a marginalized community power over their bodies and the ability to decide how many children to have. This would, in turn, make it easier for them to provide for themselves and get ahead.

Furthermore, Sanger did not enter the project without first observing a desire for reproductive health information from black women in the communities that she intended to work within.

Hazel Moore, a veteran lobbyist and health administrator, ran a birth control project under Sanger’s direction and found that black women in several Virginia counties were very responsive to birth control education. A 1938 trip to Tennessee further convinced Sanger of the desire of African-Americans in that region to control their fertility and the need for specific programs in birth control education aimed at the black community.

After observing this need Sanger teamed up with the Birth Control Federation of America to get funding for a campaign that would teach Southern black women about contraception. Unfortunately once they secured funding the project left Sanger’s control. She had wanted to train a black minister and a black doctor to tour the South, preaching about contraception in every city, church, and organization that they could. She believed that this step was necessary to drum up support and gain the community’s trust before launching a practical campaign that would actually supply contraception to black mothers.

The men running the Birth Control Federation of America decided that they wanted to go a different route, to include working birth control services for the black community into the general public health program, without any prior education in the community. They also refused Sanger’s idea to build a black-staffed clinic within the community, choosing instead a more mobile plan that swept in and out of the area like the vaccination caravans of the time.

The Negro Project was fairly problematic  because, as devised, it centralized control in the hands of white physicians, which did not empower the black community. It is important to note that this was not Sanger’s vision, this is what happened after her input in the project was ignored and her influence taken away.

Margaret Sanger’s papers make it clear that she wanted to develop a project that would empower black community leaders to bring contraception options and education to the people of their own communities. It’s unfortunate that she lost control of the project and it did not become what she had envisioned. It is also unfortunate that her efforts on behalf of people of color and other impoverished mothers have been turned into an example of some evil plot by writers who do not take the time to understand Sanger’s intentions.

Further Reading:

Sanger’s papers related to the Negro Project can be found in The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 3.

“Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project,” #28, Fall 2001.