Written by: Gyles Ward '21
Edited by: Alyscia Batista '23
As teenage boys anxiously await the next Yeezy drop, many Americans are longing for the day when herd immunity becomes a realization. Currently, three vaccines have been approved by the FDA for emergency use, Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson . Despite aggressive distribution approaches, Black Americans trail dangerously behind in vaccination rates . The Pew Research Center reported in December that only 42% of Black Americans would take the Covid-19 vaccine upon distribution, compared to 63% of white Americans . A well-charted history of denied healthcare and unethical experimentation has forged a contentious dynamic between Black Americans and the medical industry. To put it simply, many Black Americans don’t trust this vaccine. However, it wasn't always this way.
Ironically, if one closely examined the history of vaccination, one’d discover that inoculation was a practice brought to colonial America by a Black man. In 1721, the smallpox virus hitched a ride to Boston, Massachusetts on the HMS Seahorse departing from Barbados. Shortly thereafter, it ravaged the city, forcing 10 percent of Bostonians to migrate to the countryside. Accounts of the deadly disease were kept by one of the most prolific preachers of the 18th century, Cotton Mather. Earlier that century, Mather’s congregation gifted him with an enslaved West African man whom he named Onesimus after St. Paul’s adopted son. The borrowed name translated to “useful” and if nominative determinism was coined in the 18th century, Onesimus would have been a supreme example [4, 5].
Upon his enslavement, Onesimus told Mather he had been granted immunity from smallpox thanks to an ancient West African practice that took a small amount of pus from a smallpox victim and deposited it to the wound of a healthy person. An astonished Mather verified this theory with numerous enslaved Africans who recounted their own inoculation treatments. In fact, many enslaved Africans in colonial America were not only inoculated but also practiced inoculation within their communities . Some historical accounts place inoculation practices in 10th century China . Others describe enslaved Africans in the Caribbean asserting inoculation as a primordial African technique .
In 1721, at the apex of the Boston smallpox epidemic, Mather put forth an urgent request to physicians to adopt the practice. He was immediately met with ridicule. Religious leaders posed the argument that God wouldn't want his people to infect themselves with a deadly disease, while racists rejected the notion that Africans could invent something so medically revolutionary. One racist doctor, Dr. William Douglass, the only physician in Boston with a medical degree at the time, even claimed that inoculation was the enslaved African’s murderous scheme to overthrow their masters. The premier paper at the time, the New England Courant, mercilessly castigated Mather, and words soon devolved to action when a townsperson reportedly threw an explosive device with an attached angry note through his window [4, 5].
Interestingly, white Americans distrusted the earliest form of a smallpox vaccine due to the contentious and racist dynamic between them and enslaved Africans. While making this point, it is important to distinguish the distrust of black Americans today from the distrust of white Americans of the past. The former is rooted in the long history of racist healthcare systems while the latter is rooted in racism. That being said, the racism of white Americans came at a great human cost. By 1722, 844 Bostonians had died from smallpox. Nevertheless, Mather did eventually convince a physician named Zabdiel Boylston of the theory. After Boylston confirmed the theory by successfully inoculating his son and two of his enslaved workers, he performed 242 inoculations, of which only six were fatal [4, 5].
Given their original stances, why are white Americans more willing to take the Covid-19 vaccine? Well, it wasn’t until 1796, when Edward Jenner, a white Englishman developed a smallpox vaccine—after observing milkmaids who had been previously ill with cowpox appear unaffected by smallpox—that white Americans broadly welcomed inoculation . By then, enslaved Africans might’ve already developed distrust in medicine. In the late 1700s, enslaved children and pregnant women were brutally and forcibly experimented on with smallpox inoculation and purgatives . This would foreshadow decades of slave experimentation.
The real history of vaccination proves two things. Firstly, in the context of medicine, distrust often leads to death. In a pandemic where Black Americans are 1.9 times more likely to die, distrust is a barrier that must be carefully deconstructed . That feat, however, extends beyond Covid-19. The medical industry must take broad-reaching anti-racist action to earn the trust of the Black community. To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to pressure Black folks to take this vaccine but rather to engage readers in an honest discussion about racism as a public health crisis. In truth, the reason behind slower vaccination rates in Black Americans is combinatorial. Black folks generally have less access to vaccines, especially those who live in rural or underfunded communities . Secondly, science has done poorly in crediting Black contributions. Onesimus and his West African contemporaries join the long list of Black figures erased from historical narratives. If it were not for them, 236 Bostonians would have perished during one of the most sickly eras in American history. As we press forward to a post-pandemic life, let us not forget to pay homage to the Black ancestors who truly made it possible.