In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke with hope of the day when people would be judged according to the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. In attacking the causes and consequences of discrimination, inequality, and injustice, it was certainly not King’s intent to play down the importance of the objective study of skin of color itself. While many theorists locate the roots of racial prejudice in the color of skin, the darker skin of color has also inspired numerous men and women to dedicate their lives to the study, treatment, and care of dermatologic conditions and diseases. Race may be only skin deep—and not, that is to say, a matter of genetics and blood—but this skin holds many characteristics, oddities, benefits, and mysteries peculiar unto itself.
Today, African American dermatologists practice across the country, hold positions in major research universities and corporate institutions, and serve as advocates in public health organizations. Institutionally, most belong to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), and many of these dermatologists are among the 25,000 members of the National Medical Association (NMA), the oldest and largest national organization of African American physicians. The study and practice of skin of color dermatology is currently well established in a variety of medical schools and hospitals; however, this was not always the case. Indeed, writing a history of African American dermatology presents some interesting historical challenges, not the least of which is deciding what “counts” as dermatology and who can be regarded as a dermatologist. The practice and knowledge of African American dermatology undoubtedly existed in various forms long before the existence of officially trained and board-certified practitioners.
The first phase of modern dermatology in the United States (as well as in Continental Europe and Great Britain) dates from roughly 1850 to 1900, coinciding with periods of virulent racism and systemic racial exclusion in America. The first regional dermatologic associations began appearing in the United States at least as early as 1869, with the first national organization, the American Dermatological Association, holding its first annual meeting in 1877. Yet the specialty did not receive full official recognition until 1932, with the formation of the American Board of Dermatology as the first incorporated entity charged with setting and maintaining the standards for the practice of dermatology and syphilology. Shortly after this, the American Academy of Dermatology made its appearance in 1939; with over 19,000 members, it is the largest member-based organization for dermatologists in America and worldwide. As was the case in other medical specialties and within the professions at large, African Americans were pointedly excluded from these organizations for many years and were forced to establish their own separate associations and networks.
The men who met during the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895 to call the NMA ...