Black History and Black Futures


While celebrating Black history, we also work to create a more equitable future.

Black History Month is a time to celebrate influential leaders and impactful moments of the past. But celebrating Black history is not enough. 

United Way of Southeast Louisiana continues to work toward a future where Black community members have the same access to employment, education, health care, and housing as their white neighbors. 

As part of that work, below we highlight an important moment from Black history in health, education, and financial stability, outline a few current challenges faced by Black community members, and explain what United Way SELA is doing to help solve these problems. 


Moment in History

1789: Dr. James Durham, acknowledged as the first recognized Black physician in America, saved countless lives during a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans. Dr. Durham was a freed slave who practiced medicine independently in New Orleans for years before his mysterious disappearance.

Current Challenges

Despite Dr. Durham’s groundbreaking work and the contributions of many other Black health care pioneers, health outcomes for the Black population are still significantly worse than for white people. A person’s health is determined by more than their diet and exercise habits. Social factors including employment and income, housing, transportation, and access to health care also play a major role. 

  • Nearly 100,000 fewer Black Americans would die each year, if the Black mortality rate was the same as it is for white people.
  • A Black individual will live three fewer years on average than a white person with the same income. 
  • Black Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to be hospitalized and 3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans.

United Way’s Work

United Way SELA believes that an individual’s race, ZIP code, or income should never be a barrier to quality health. We work to address health inequity by:

  • Fighting for improved access to health care coverage
  • Supporting mental health through counseling programs
  • Making it easier for people to access substance abuse programs
  • Helping domestic violence and sexual assault survivors regain their safety and independence 
  • Funding programs that promote the health and well-being of older adults 


Moment in History

November 14, 1960: Six-year-old Ruby Bridges, escorted by four federal marshals, walks through crowds shouting racial slurs and threats and into William Frantz Elementary School, becoming one of the first Black students to attend an all-white public school in New Orleans. Ruby would continue to require federal protection on her walks to and from school and was taught alone for her first year. Ruby’s bravery established her as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Current Challenges

The Supreme Court ruled school segregation as unconstitutional in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. But segregation in public schools has risen in decades since. This kind of structural racism along with institutional racism has hurt the educational outcomes of Black students.

United Way’s Work

United Way SELA fights to shift the odds for students of color and those in low-income areas. Our work includes:

  • Increasing access to high-quality early care and education programs to set kids up for success in school
  • Promoting literacy and preventing summer learning loss through the Kay Fennelly Summer Literacy Institute
  • Supporting programs across our seven-parish region the provide educational services and supports including afterschool activities, mentoring, college and career readiness, and more

Financial Stability

Moment in History

May 12, 1968: Thousands of Black women, led by Coretta Scott King, begin the first demonstrations in the Poor People’s Campaign. After building Resurrection City on the National Mall, they stayed in temporary shacks for over a month in a fight for jobs, unemployment insurance, and a higher minimum wage. 

Current Challenges

Decades of segregation, discrimination, and low wages have impacted the financial stability of Black families in the U.S. Since 1992, the racial wealth gap has grown.

United Way’s Work

United Way SELA battles chronic unemployment, housing insecurity, and financial illiteracy; issues which disproportionately affect Black Americans. In April, United Way joined with BET to bring over $2 million to the New Orleans community to help Black Americans harmed by the financial devastation of the pandemic. Our ongoing work includes:

  • Providing free tax preparation services for middle- and low-income families
  • Offering financial education and coaching, including credit building and counseling and benefits screening through our J. Wayne Leonard Prosperity Center
  • Supporting workforce development programs 

You can be a part of our work to create a more equitable future in Southeast Louisiana. Sign up for our email list to learn how you can give, advocate, and volunteer to ensure that every single person, no matter their race, can thrive in our community.