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Black History Month: The History of Acupuncture in the United States

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In honor of Black History Month, we thought we would take a look at the history of Acupuncture in the United States and the unique part the Black community had in the arrival of old Chinese techniques in the western world.

Our story begins in the 1970s, but instead of telling the story of President Nixon bringing Chinese medicine to the forefront when recovering from a minor surgery, we are going to tell you the story of grassroots organizations coming together to take ownership of their own healthcare by incorporating acupuncture.

The New York Lincoln Detox Center

In November 1970 a group consisting of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords (a Chicago-based Latino civil and human rights organization), and the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement came together to open The New York Lincoln Detox Center: The People’s Drug Program.

But this was not a red-ribbon-cutting type moment.  Lincoln Hospital was built in 1839 to receive former slaves migrating from the South. By 1970, it was the only medical facility in the South Bronx. It was a dilapidated brick structure from the previous century that had never been upgraded. Members of the Young Lord, the Black Panthers and the Health Revolutionary Movement walked in and took over the Nurses’ Residence building of Lincoln Hospital and refused to leave. They proceeded to create the first drug rehabilitation treatment center to incorporate acupuncture and the was the first private medical institution to implement the mass use of acupuncture.

After having their neighborhoods riddled with dangerous drug use, the founders had grown dissatisfied with methadone maintenance from mainstream sources replacing one drug for another. Desperate to help people take back their lives, medical providers with the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement found acupuncture.

The Lincoln Detox Program was recognized as the largest and most effective of its kind by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Acupuncture Research Society, and the World Academic Society of Acupuncture.

Dr. Mutulu Shakur

One of the acupuncture practitioners that led the charge was Mutulu Shakur. Shakur was born in 1950 as Jeral Wayne Williams in Baltimore, MD. When he was seven, he moved to Queens, NY with his family. When he was a teenager, he became involved with the Revolutionary Action Movement. He was certified and licensed to practice acupuncture in the State of California in 1979. Shakur worked for and lead the Lincoln Hospital Detoxification Program in the Bronx in New York from 1971 to 1978. In 1978 Dr. Shakur became the co-founder and co-director of the Black Acupuncture Advisory Association of North America and the Harlem Institute of Acupuncture.

Despite the origin of the Lincoln Detox Program, Shakur didn’t limit his treatment to those with drug addiction. He made regular, quality, low-cost health care available to everyone in the area. Poor nutrition, lack of adequate health care, as well as the drugs being pumped into the communities, red lining, and the reality of PTSD and PTSS from the everyday stress of living in such subhuman circumstances, were a heavy burden for the community to carry. Acupuncture became a low-cost and effective solution for those in the Black and Latino communities.  This became the foundation for the current community acupuncture movement. 

Modern Acupuncture in the Black Community

Currently there is a Black Acupuncturist Association whose mission is to create a network of African Diasporan Acupuncture Medicine practitioners who work to promote, educate, elevate, and support African Diasporan Black practitioners while creating health equity in an inclusive and liberated world community.

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