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Black Recovery Leaders Through History

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Black Americans have always been an important part of the recovery community. Today we want to recognize six of the Black recovery leaders who have made a major impact over the years, from the 19th century to today.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was many things—bestselling author, renowned public speaker, former slave, abolitionist, and the most photographed man in America in the 1800s. He was also a staunch opponent of alcohol and drugs. He believed that alcohol was a tool to keep slaves oppressed and disorganized, as well as an evil to society as a whole. For Douglass, temperance (a movement pushing society to strictly limit or completely abstain from alcohol) went hand in hand with the abolition of slavery. While the temperance movement may sound extreme to us in modern times, in the 19th century it was a growing and influential movement, and Douglass was a respected leader in it.

Lula A. Beatty, PhD

Lula A. Beatty was director of research at the Institute for Urban Affairs and Research at Howard University, a historically Black university. Today, Dr. Beatty is director of the Special Populations Office at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In this role, she not only directs research into racial/ethnic disparities in health and treatment but also recognizes the importance of people of color being the ones conducting the research. She encourages underrepresented scholars to participate in addiction research, including promoting mentorship programs.

Malcolm X

Many of us associate Malcolm X more with his portrayals in movies than with the real man that he was. As a young man, X both used and sold drugs, along with committing several other crimes. While in prison, he joined the Nation of Islam and found recovery through religion. He saw drug use as a way that Black men anesthetized themselves to the pain of inequality and abuse, but believed that it also contributed to their oppression. He advocated for drug rehabilitation programs, both social and religious, and promoted Black sobriety and dignity.

Chaney Allen

In 1978, Chaney Allen’s autobiography, I’m Black and I’m Sober: A Minister’s Daughter Tells Her Story about Fighting the Disease of Alcoholism And Winning, was published. This was one of the first autobiographies by a Black woman in recovery, and it was eye-opening for many who had never considered substance use from that point of view. Allen founded the California Black Commission on Alcoholism and the California Women’s Commission on Alcoholism.

Joe McQ

Director of a non-profit addiction treatment center, author, and public speaker, Joe McQ was also one-half of the influential Alcoholics Anonymous duo “Joe and Charlie.” He entered recovery in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1962 and founded Serenity House (now Serenity Park Recovery Center) ten years later. When he first got into recovery, McQ was often excluded from the 12-step community due to his race, but he organized meetings himself and grew to be hugely influential within the rooms—you can find meetings around the country that are dedicated to his books or to the “Joe and Charlie Tapes” (studies of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which is colloquially known as The Big Book).

Melissa M. Freeman, M.D. 

Melissa Freeman received her degree from Howard University Medical School in 1955 and has been practicing medicine since 1961. She began working at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in the medical center’s pioneering drug detoxification center and was a member of the team that expanded methadone treatment across the city in the 1970s. Dr. Freeman’s work helped to make medication-assisted treatment available to women, and she is considered to be the first doctor to treat a woman with methadone for opioid use disorder. In her 90s, she still practices medicine today, splitting her time between addiction medicine and her private practice as an internist.

These are just a few of the Black recovery leaders who have shaped America. Consider checking out the Online Museum of African American Addictions, Treatment and Recovery to learn more.

Alaine Sepulveda is a content strategist in recovery from alcohol. She believes that engaging people and sharing stories with them allows us to spread knowledge, and to help others in the path to recovery. She holds an MA in Communication Studies from New Mexico State University.

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