My Coast Guard
Commentary | Feb. 1, 2022

Message from the Commandant: Celebrate black health & wellness

By MyCG Staff

Black History Month, celebrated annually during February, affords Americans an opportunity to learn sometimes under-valued and even untold details of our Nation’s rich history. The observance grew out of Negro History Week, conceptualized in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the organization that became the Association for the Study of African American Life and  History (ASALH). With civil rights advances, ASALH officially  transitioned the celebration to a month-long observance in 1976. Every U.S. President has since officially designated February as National Black History Month. This year’s celebration focuses on the theme of “Black Health and Wellness” and reflects on Black community’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and the legacy of its scholars and medical practitioners.

The Coast Guard salutes every day and historic figures who demonstrated prodigious talent and perseverance, such as Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American in the United States to earn a medical degree. Denied an opportunity for an education in medicine in his home state of New York, Dr. Smith attended and received his degree from Scotland's Glasgow University in 1837, graduating at the top of his class. He later returned to New York and became the first African-American to own and operate a pharmacy in the U.S., and the first to be published in U.S. medical journals. We recognize Dr. Charles R. Drew, who pioneered an early standardized blueprint for collecting blood and plasma. Using his methods, five New York Hospitals successfully processed and shipped plasma to Britain for military and civilian casualties in the early 1940s. Later, the process and preservation helped U.S. troops receive blood transfusions during World War II, saving numerous lives.

In public service in 1993 Dr. Jocelyn Elders, a pediatrician and public health administrator, became the first African American to hold the position of Surgeon General of the United States. In 2015, Rear Admiral Erica Schwartz achieved a significant milestone when she was appointed as the first African American woman to serve as the Coast Guard's Chief Medical Officer. She implemented disease surveillance, vaccination, screening and nuclear-biological-chemical countermeasure programs. She wrote the Service’s first pandemic influenza, anthrax and smallpox vaccination, quarantinable communicable disease, periodic health assessment, and HIV policies, and helped develop health protection guidance for armed forces deployments to disaster areas after Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill among others. She offered testimony to Congress on the need, and led the modernization of the Coast Guard’s health record system. RADM Schwartz was later appointed Deputy Surgeon General of the United States and retired from the Public Health Service in 2021 after 27 years of uniformed service.

America's history is incredibly diverse and rich, and these stories are our stories. Appreciating and celebrating cultural observances helps us better understand our history and promote equity, dignity, and respect for all workforce members, ultimately enhancing our Service readiness and mission delivery. Our Coast Guard is far greater and continues to improve when we seek to understand the perspectives and experiences of all people.

Throughout the month-long celebration, all personnel are encouraged to participate in events by organizing programs that highlight African American health and wellness history and accomplishments, as well as the medical professionals serving our Nation and the Coast Guard. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, please follow established guidelines for in-person gatherings and creatively use virtual collaboration platforms and tools as necessary.