Health History: Health and Longevity Since the Mid-19th Century

Despite the harsh living conditions of slavery, reconstruction and twentieth century separatism, Black older adults in the United States have continued to grow stronger and live longer. Some estimates placed the average longevity of Blacks at 21.4 years of age in 1850, with the average longevity for Whites at age 25.5. The combination of lower living standards, greater exposure, heavier labor, and poorer medical care gave slaves a higher mortality rate than whites. In 1860, 3.5 percent of the slaves and 4.4 percent of the Whites were over sixty. The death rate was 1.8 percent for the slaves and 1.2 percent for Whites (Stamp, 1965, p. 77).

These conclusions should not be accepted uncritically. The findings are based upon comparisons of aggregate data collected at the national level by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1850. Mortality data at the state level, for example in Virginia, for the same year did not show the same results. Savitt (1978, p. 201) found evidence that “more slaves than whites died of old age” between 1853 and 1860 in four Virginia counties. This suggests that some Black older adultslived longer than older Whites, at least in those counties. It was also reported that there were more centenarians among Blacks than Whites in 1850 (Savitt).

Care of Older Slaves

Even though Black centenarians may have out-numbered Whites, it does not follow that Black older adults received better health care from slavers than older Whites. At least three other factors may have been operative even as early as 1850:

  1. Black older adults may have been hardier in some physiological characteristics than their White counterparts and more successful at coping with the health hazards that so frequently occur between childhood and mid-life
  2. The longer the slave was alive and well enough to work, the greater the economic return the slaver received for his/her investment
  3. There may have developed within the “slave community” means of self health care that helped young and old slaves to withstand the hazards of everyday life during the antebellum period

Changes since 1990

The foregoing discussion suggests that few Black elderly lived long enough to enjoy retirement where that was permitted. Much less did elderly Blacks live leisurely and comfortably under slavery (Fisher, 1969; Genovese, 1974).

By 1900, some improvements had occurred in the longevity of Blacks: In 1900 the expectation of life for Negro females was 35 years and that of Negro males 32.5 years, as compared with 51 years and 48 years for White females and males, respectively. (Frazier, 1957, p. 569).
Since 1940, there have been further improvements in the life expectancy of Blacks and Whites. Whether born in 1900 or 1976, White females could expect to live longest of all, followed in descending order by Black females, White males, and Black males, who had the lowest life expectancy of all.

The average life expectancy of each group, however, in 1976 was much greater than it was in 1900. Frazier (1957) observed that chronic diseases were especially important to any attempt to explain the differences between Black and White mortality rates. There were, for example, certain disease-related stressors that clearly had a greater negative impact on the health of Blacks than Whites and helped to explain the lower longevity of Blacks during the first half of the 20th century. At mid-century, Frazier observed the following:

After the age of five, the rates for the communicable diseases which characterize childhood are about the same for the two races. On the other hand, death rates for tuberculosis, influenza, nephritis, pneumonia, syphilis, homicides, and pellagra are uniformly higher among Negroes than Whites.

Tuberculosis, influenza and pneumonia are responsible for nearly three-fourths of the excess mortality among Negroes under 25 years of age. About 50 percent of the excess mortality among Negroes between 10 and 24 years of age is attributable to tuberculosis alone. Although in the older age groups tuberculosis accounts for a smaller proportion of deaths, influenza and pneumonia are important in all ages. For the group between 45 and 65 years of age (in the year 1950), nephritis and heart disease were responsible for 40 percent of the excess mortality (Frazier, 1957, p. 572).

Tuberculosis and pneumonia were also identified as causes of the high death rates among Blacks at the turn of the 20TH century. Furthermore, the socioeconomic and psychological factors of ignorance, poverty, negligence, and intemperance were specified as major conditional factors that explain variations in incidence of death.

Although Blacks still die at earlier ages than Whites, many of the diseases identified above have been significantly reduced as causes of death since 1850. With the synthesis of penicillin in 1940 and its widespread prescription for rich and poor, Black and White, pneumonia has been brought under control. Along with other advances in medical technology and public-health measures (such as water and sewage treatments, nutrition education), improvements are being made in the overall quality of life in modern societies.