A RACE against HIV/AIDS in Black Churches

Daniel Royles is an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University in Miami. He is the recipient of a Rose Library short-term research fellowship.

A short-term fellowship from the Rose Library at Emory University gave me the opportunity to do on-site archival research in the records of SCLC/Women’s Organizational Movement for Equality Now (SCLC/W.O.M.E.N.), Inc., a branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). My research focused on the group’s efforts to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, primarily through the National AIDS Minority Information and Education Program, which operated in six U.S. cities, including Atlanta. This research builds on my previous work on African American AIDS activism, including my book To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS (UNC Press, 2020).

In To Make the Wounded Whole I examined AIDS education efforts in the Black church through the story of The Balm in Gilead, which got its start as the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS in 1989 and has since grown into an organization that works on multiple continents “to prevent diseases and improve the health status of people of African Descent… to programmatically eliminate health disparities.” I had been aware of SCLC/W.O.M.E.N.’s efforts, and periodically came across mention of the National AIDS Minority Information and Education Program in my research, but it wasn’t until I began work on “When My Brothers Fell,” an article on Black gay men’s AIDS activism in Atlanta, for the March 2021 issue of The Baffler that I became more deeply interested in writing about it.

I wrote “When My Brothers Fell” during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when libraries and archives were still closed to researchers; as a result, I was limited to research in materials that I already had on hand, including my previous research in the personal papers of Duncan Teague, a longtime Black gay activist in Atlanta; whatever I could access digitally, such as newspapers; and Zoom interviews with those who had played a part in the fight against AIDS in Atlanta’s Black gay community, including Maurice Franklin, a Black gay man who was hired by SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. to lead its AIDS programs. Using these sources, I was able to piece together the following narrative.

In May 1986 SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. held a conference on AIDS in Black communities. Tensions over respectability politics, and specifically over the place of queer sexuality within the larger movement, simmered underneath the event. Gil Gerald, who at the time was the executive director of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, was only added to the conference program after he called the SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. office to complain about the exclusion of Black gay men from the slate of speakers. Two years later, in 1988, SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. submitted a proposal to the CDC’s National AIDS Minority Information and Education Program for Reducing AIDS through Community Education (RACE), a new outreach effort that focused on HIV prevention and education programs in Black churches in a handful of U.S. cities. The grant was awarded, and Maurice Franklin, a Black gay man, was hired to direct the RACE program. Over the next several years, Franklin (by his own account) would come to find that both leaders of SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. and the churches that partnered with the organization were reluctant to deal with HIV among Black gay men, and in 1992 conflict over a proposed partnership with the African American Lesbian/Gay Alliance led Franklin to resign.

However, I wanted to know more about this story, and I resolved to conduct archival research in the SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. once it became safe to do so. As institutions opened back up, I applied for a short-term fellowship from Rose Library and was thrilled when my application was awarded.

Through my research in the SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. collection at Emory, I aimed to answer the following questions:

  • In what specific ways did SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. aim to address AIDS in Black communities through the RACE program?
  • What types of messages did SCLC/WOMEN craft to educate Black churchgoers about AIDS, and to what extent did these messages address the epidemic among stigmatized groups, such as gay men and intravenous drug users?
  • How did the national group relate to local partner organizations and churches?
  • How was the RACE program received by churches in different parts of the country?
  • How did the RACCE program compare to other AIDS education and prevention efforts in Black churches, such as the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS and those designed later on by The Balm in Gilead?

In answering these questions, I will show a venerable civil rights organization tried to navigate the issues of respectability surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic and will speak to both their successes and their failures in doing so.

At the moment I am still processing my research materials, but I am grateful to Rose Library and Emory University for their support. A more detailed, nuanced account of SCLC/WOMEN’s HIV education and prevention efforts is needed and will contribute not just to the growing literature on African American AIDS activism, but also to conversations on the role of Black churches in addressing HIV along with other racialized health disparities.