When you think about the history of acupuncture, the Black Panther Party is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But actually, this revolutionary group played a key role in bringing acupuncture to the West, particularly in the realm of drug detox and addiction treatment.
Who Are The Black Panthers?
The Black Panther Party was a political organization founded in Oakland, California in 1966. The party was established to combat police brutality and racism against black Americans, and it quickly became a symbol of black power and radical politics during the civil rights movement of the 1960's and 1970's.
The Black Panthers were controversial due to their militant and confrontational tactics, but they are also known for their emphasis on grassroots, community-based organization. Their mission to "Serve the People, Body and Soul" still resonates today, and is a good fit with the holistic nature of acupuncture.
The Lincoln Detox Center and The Rise of Acupuncture Activism
In the 1970's the South Bronx area of New York City was plagued with rampant drug addiction and a lack of adequate health care services. After a series of protests by a group of activists and healthcare workers, including the Black Panthers, The Lincoln Detox Center was established at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.
The Lincoln Detox Center sought to address chronic pain and addiction problems by offering a unique combination of traditional Western medicine and alternative therapies, including free acupuncture treatments for members of the community. The center was founded during a time of social and political upheaval in the United States, and it was part of a larger movement for health equity and community-based healthcare.
Many of the staff and patients at the center were members of the Black Panther Party. They saw acupuncture as a form of healthcare that could help address the disparities in healthcare access that existed in low-income and minority communities. Notably, Dr. Mutulu Shakur (stepfather of the legendary rapper Tupac Shakur) practiced acupuncture at the clinic and served as the program's assistant director for a period of time.
Dr. Tolbert Small - "The People's Doctor"
Another prominent figure at the intersection of black history and acupuncture is the renowned activist, humanitarian, and poet, Dr. Tolbert Small. In 1972 Dr. Small travelled to China with a delegation from the Black Panther Party where he observed the work of China's so-called "barefoot doctors". The "barefoot doctors" were not formally licensed physicians, but rural farmers who were trained in a variety of basic medical skills, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and first aid. They were deployed to rural communities where they were often the only healthcare providers available.
The barefoot doctor program was highly successful in reducing mortality rates and improving overall health outcomes in rural areas of China. It is often cited as a model for community-based healthcare delivery around the world.
Dr. Small later became the official physician of the Black Panther Party, and one of the first Americans to practice acupuncture in the United States. In 1980 he opened the Harriet Tubman Medical Office in Oakland, CA with his wife Anola, and has dedicated his life to advancing the civil rights movement and providing healthcare for underserved communities.
The Legacy of Black History in Acupuncture
While the Lincoln Detox Center was eventually closed due to accusations of mismanagement, its legacy survives in the South Bronx and beyond. The center's commitment to community-based healthcare and alternative therapies like acupuncture continues to inspire healthcare activists and practitioners around the world. The history of the Lincoln Detox Center and its use of acupuncture serves as a powerful reminder of the role that healthcare can play in social and political change.
Here are some links to learn more about the history of acupuncture, activism, and the Black Panthers:
Of Part and Parcel
Science historian Eana Meng personally met with Dr. Tolbert Small, and has compiled a series of stories that shed light on black history and acupuncture. Be sure to check out the cool pics of the Black Panther Party visit to China in 1972.
Dr. Tolbert Small's Website
Dr. Small has been practicing medicine for 60 years, and he's still going strong! Check it out to learn more about his activism, poetry, and medical work.
Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination
Written by Alondra Nelson, this book is a deep dive into the history of the Black Panthers and their work in health activism.
How Racism Gave Rise to Acupuncture for Addiction Treatment
An article in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan about the history of acupuncture for addiction treatment.