The people's
doctor

Where we consider larger implications of access and activism.

CREATED BY

Eana Meng

ASSISTED BY

Katherine Wu

Emily Ma

Jesus Cisneros Estrada

narrative

oral history

Black Revolutionaries and Acupuncture

Author's Statement

“Medicine was part and parcel of this broader commitment and picture,” emphasized Dr. David Levinson, “and that was to transform society.”

I met Dr. Levinson in February 2019 at a Pete’s Coffee in Emeryville, California. I was one month away from my undergraduate senior thesis deadline, and I had very little written. I knew it was meant to be about integrative medicine, but nothing I had written felt quite right. Then, I stumbled upon an Atlantic article about the Black Panther Party’s use of acupuncture. Intrigued, I asked my thesis advisor, Professor Shigehisa Kuriyama, if this history was in academic scholarship. It was not.

I scavenged the internet and found Dr. Tolbert Small’s website. Trained at Wayne State Medical School, Dr. Small had gone on a trip to China in 1972 with the BPP and taught himself acupuncture upon returning home. He’s been practicing ever since alongside his general clinical work. I found his email, and tried my luck. Within minutes, I got a response from Dr. Small: “Call me.” Soon, I found myself flying across the country to meet Dr. Small. I also met with Dr. Levinson, who was twenty when he went to China with the BPP delegation. It was a quick 36 hour trip, but by its end, I knew I had found not only my thesis topic, but also the starting point of a greater journey.

The stories of Drs. Small and Levinson (and others, like Dr. Mutulu Shakur) contend a new definition of integrative medicine: one that combines medical with social practices. Traditionally, integrative medicine is understood as the fusion of different medical theories, but this history teaches us that medicine can be entwined with the BPP spirit of “serving the people, body and soul,” in specific, and a commitment to change, in general.

-Eana Meng

Video: "Black Revolutionaries and Acupuncture? A History of Integrative Medicine" by Eana Meng

The Archive

A full archive of interviews with Dr. Tolbert Small is in process.

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Dr. Mutulu Shakur

Dr. Tolbert Small

In 1980, Dr. Small opened up the Harriet Tubman Medical Office in Oakland with Anola Price. For thirty-six years, Dr. Small served the community at his office and through house calls with integrity, respect, and the highest commitment to justice. Today, at the age of seventy-seven, he continues his practice at the Native American Health Center, working fifty-hours per week.

In 1970, Mutulu Shakur, witnessed his sons recover from car accidents with the aid of acupuncture. Intrigued, he sought to learn more about the practice, and soon came across literature that suggested acupuncture’s potential efficacy in treating substance use disorders. At the height of the drug epidemic in the 1970s, the Lincoln Detox Center functioned as a community gathering place that offered acupuncture treatment, political education and community service.