Invariably, these reports cite the long, dark history of Black medical exploitation to explain vaccine hesitancy and, in doing so, feed a broader narrative that Black people’s relationship to medicine, and science and technology more broadly, is primarily defined by oppression. Yet while exploitation is an undeniable fact of Black people’s historical experience with science, Black Americans have an equally long history of using science to achieve their own freedom.
Given the focus on Black vaccine hesitancy, one might be surprised to learn that many White people first learned about inoculation from enslaved Africans. In 1716, the Boston minister Cotton Mather wrote to the Royal Society of London, England’s leading scientific society, that his enslaved servant Onesimus, “who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow … told me, that he had undergone an Operation” in Africa — variolation, a form of inoculation similar to vaccination — “which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever praeserve [sic] him from it.”
Five years later, when a smallpox epidemic ransacked Boston, Mather became a leading advocate of Onesimus’s inoculation technique — even as large segments of the White scientific community rejected the practice because it came from Africans. William Douglass, a Massachusetts physician trained at the prestigious University of Edinburgh, dismissed variolation in part because Mather’s evidence came from “an Army of a Dozen or half a score Africans, by others call’d Negroe Slaves, who tell us now (tho’ never before) that it is practiced in their Own Country.”
Yet the White scientific community was hardly unanimous in its rejection of Black medical knowledge. At the same time that Douglass was discrediting smallpox variolation on account of its African origins, other members of the Royal Society were simultaneously writing letters to traders of enslaved people in West Africa to find out more about the African technique. Throughout the 1720s, James Brydges, a Royal Society member, queried traders of enslaved people “to enquire into the Physick the Natives use” not only for smallpox, but “Fevers, fluxs, &C …”
Indeed, during the entire era of slavery, Black medical knowledge was both highly sought after by White scientific elites and zealously guarded by enslaved communities. Enslaved African women, in particular, had a long history of surreptitiously using the seeds of the peacock flower to induce abortions. And in the context of slavery, abortions constituted a form of resistance. By refusing to bring a child into the world, enslaved women were rejecting slavery as an acceptable form of life or refusing to bear children born of rape. The Dutch naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian learned about this mysterious abortifacient from enslaved women directly: “Africans,” she wrote in 1705, “use the seeds [of the peacock flower] to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. … They told me this themselves.”
By the early 19th century, free Black abolitionists began to wed the mission of science — and vaccination campaigns, in particular — to the larger Black freedom struggle. Black newspapers championed smallpox vaccination campaigns not only as a way to save Black lives, but to demonstrate Black people’s ability to be responsible citizens. In 1828, Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper, promoted vaccination by celebrating “Dr. Nancrede, the vaccine physician in Philadelphia, [who] vaccinated 1724 [people] last year.”
Perhaps no one proved a greater champion of vaccination than Frederick Douglass. He routinely castigated anti-vaxxers, noting that when Edward Jenner created a safer smallpox vaccine in 1796, it was White skeptics who “let loose upon him: he was a blasphemer … an infidel and a freethinker!” In 1848, Douglass urged Black readers to take part in annual celebrations in Jenner’s honor and three years later solicited donations from his readers for a bronze statue to Jenner, “in honor of his great discovery of vaccination.”
The Black community’s embrace of science went far beyond vaccination, too. Though we often assume that medical exploitation and scientific racism defined the Black experience with science before emancipation, Black abolitionists and their White allies drew upon a wide range of scientific ideas and evidence to attack slavery. Indeed, it was abolitionists — not enslavers — who dominated the scientific debates over slavery.
Many Black and White abolitionists hoped that Sierra Leone, a British colony founded by abolitionists for emancipated people, would provide a model for post-emancipation agricultural labor. To that end, the colony’s early abolitionist promoters — many of them respected men of science — relied on Black settlers to conduct on-the-ground scientific research to prove that the region was healthy and fertile enough to support a thriving free Black colony.
In the 1810s, John Kizell, a formerly enslaved South Carolinian and Sierra Leone settler, exchanged numerous letters with William Allen, a British chemist, about the region’s soil, climate, topography and indigenous medicines: “I have sent you three specimens of medicine which you will accept as from a Friend,” Kizell wrote to Allen in July 1812. All of this helped abolitionists prove — with scientific evidence — that there were viable alternatives to plantations worked by enslaved people.
Abolitionists were equally adept at pointing to new scientific inventions as proof that slavery’s days were numbered. In 1851, when a Brazilian scientist debuted a chemical-bath machine that might turn northern-grown flax into a cheaper alternative to cotton, effectively putting enslavers out of business, Black and White abolitionists became its loudest champions. In 1853, the Christian Recorder, a Philadelphia-based Black newspaper, urged “inventive readers to examine [the machine] and see if they cannot produce improvements to flax dressing machinery.” Henry Bibb, a self-emancipated Kentucky man living in Canada, urged fugitive Black farmers to be “at the front ranks of this experiment.”
But no one captured the scientific confidence of abolitionists better than the antislavery New-York Tribune, the nation’s largest newspaper. In 1851, on account of the chemical-machine, it wrote: “Perhaps South-Carolina would secede from Chemistry as well as the Union of Common Sense.”
After emancipation and with the rise of Jim Crow, Black Americans continued to look to science as an essential tool in their freedom struggle. Even the most widely cited story of Black medical exploitation — the Tuskegee syphilis study — has its roots in the Black community’s faith in science. One reason the federal government conducted the study on Alabama’s Black population, beginning in 1932, was because Black health-care advocates had been trying to treat that population for years.
In 1915, Black community leaders created Negro Health Week to draw attention to the lack of health care received by Black Americans, especially in the rural South. By 1928, Booker T. Washington received financial support from Julius Rosenwald, a White philanthropist, to treat and study syphilis in the rural South’s Black population. But when the stock market crashed the next year, Rosenwald pulled the plug. Three years later, the U.S. Public Health Service took over the program, this time without offering any treatment — and with disastrous results.
If the Tuskegee syphilis study stands as the embodiment of the Black community’s medical exploitation, then Negro Health Week might well represent its opposite: a marker of the Black community’s long-standing advocacy for quality health care — and, by implication, sound medical science.
Even as news of the Tuskegee trials became public in 1972, the Black Panther Party was calling on the scientific community to pay more attention to sickle cell anemia, which disproportionately affects Black people. The Black Panthers were ruthless critics of the medical neglect of Black communities, but they understood keenly how essential sound science and medicine was to Black liberation. In 1970, they mandated that all chapters set up free health clinics in Black communities, in addition to free public health care for Americans of all races.
This history of the Black community’s continuous support of science can help dispel the exaggerated public concerns about Black vaccine hesitancy. Better yet, it might provide some essential context to explain why — despite ongoing issues of medical neglect, scientific exploitation and technological discrimination — Black communities continue to have faith in science. Perhaps it’s because they have no history of losing faith at all.