Sandra Lindsay sat calmly as the needle pierced her flesh.
She gazed straight ahead at the swarm of journalists and cameras eager to capture this historic moment: She was receiving the first COVID-19 vaccination in the nation.
As the director of critical-care nursing at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and someone who has witnessed up close the trail of death this coronavirus has left behind, Lindsay, 52, saw her vaccination in December as an opportunity to help put an end to this deadly pandemic.
“I thought about … stumping COVID, getting rid of it so it can’t kill us anymore and rob us of our lives and our livelihoods,” Lindsay said.
The significance of a Black woman being the first American vaccinated also didn’t escape her. She hoped to soothe any skepticism about the vaccine that exists in communities of color. But she also understood that this country’s legacy of racist medical practices couldn’t be undone in an instant.
“I know just me getting the vaccine won’t erase the centuries of mistrust and any inhumane and harmful behaviors that have taken place,” Lindsay said. “I know my one act of taking the vaccine won’t erase those fears.”
Since the country’s inception, the American medical institution has subjected Black bodies to abuse, exploitation and experimentation. Corpses being pulled from the ground for scientific study. Black women being sterilized without their knowledge and robbed of the opportunity to bear children. An entire Black community misled into believing they were immune from a fatal illness. Time and time again, Black people have been betrayed by the medical establishment, fostering a lingering, deep-rooted mistrust.
“When we talk about why Black people wouldn’t trust a medical establishment a lot of people cite Tuskegee, which makes sense,” said Rana Hogarth, a history professor at the University of Illinois. “But Tuskegee is not the start.”
Medical abuse on the slave ship, plantation
Black anxieties about being treated by doctors may have started in the belly of slave ships, experts say. Medical treatment aboard slave ships was based on violence and terror that was already threaded through the entire Middle Passage experience.
Most slave ships had doctors aboard. While some doctors were professional, many took a cruel approach in treating sick Africans. Ill captives could be thrown overboard and, as they were property, the merchants and owners could collect insurance money. Captives were often forced to take medication or food while being threatened by a whip, cutlass or pistol. In some cases, slaves’ jaws were pried open with torture instruments, which would break their teeth to force food down their throats, said Carolyn Roberts, a history professor at Yale.
“This was a new form of medicine where enslaved people were so dehumanized that these violations were just a normal par for the course,” Roberts said.
After the Africans were sold and transferred to plantations, the medical care they received varied. Male owners generally sought to limit their involvement with daily healthcare, said Sharla Fett, a history professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. The daily labor of sick care often fell on the shoulders of enslaved women. On larger plantations, overseers made everyday health decisions, including prescribing medicine and vaccinations.
The relationship between doctors and enslaved patients was inherently compromised because slaveholders had agency over slave bodies. This dynamic left slaves “medically incompetent” and unable to initiate or prevent treatments without a slaveowner’s consent, said Fett, who outlined the dehumanizing ways slave owners used medicine in her award-winning book, “Working Cures.”
In some cases, slaveholders intentionally used medicine to punish and torture slaves. A former slave, Moses Roper, detailed one harrowing example in his 1838 narrative about his escape from a South Carolina cotton plantation. A cruel slave owner forced a female slave to consume as much castor oil, a purgative, as she could. Afterward, he forced her into a wooden box and weighed it down with stones so she couldn’t open it. He left her in that box for one night, essentially burying her alive in her own waste.
One owner ordered a slave to take vomit-inducing medicine to entertain his family. Another punished slaves by placing them in stocks arranged above each other. He then forced them to take large doses of medication and release their “filth down upon each other.”
“If that kind of medicine is used that way, why would somebody trust if they were then given that medicine if they were sick,” Fett said in an interview.
Enslaved women and reproductive experiments
But misuse of medicine was only the tip of the iceberg. Some slaveholders and physicians forced Black women to participate in reproductive procedures without anesthesia. In the 1840s, a 17-year-old enslaved woman endured 30 such surgeries, according to Dr. J. Marion Sims’ biography.
In the 19th-century South, most Caesarean sections were performed on African-American women, at a time when the operation was “usually fatal for either mother or infant, and sometimes both,” Fett wrote.
These experiments on enslaved Black women “wouldn’t have been done on white women because they would have been considered too risky.”
The value of an enslaved person during their life was measured by labor and reproduction. In death, they proved instrumental in the evolution of Southern medicine.
Slave cadavers were crucial in teaching white medical students about the human body. To keep a steady supply of cadavers for medical experimentation, some colleges pilfered dead bodies from slave cemeteries, Hogarth said.
In an 1824 advertisement for the Medical College of South Carolina, the school boasted about the number of corpses it would have for medical research, with “subjects being obtained from among the colored population in sufficient number for every purpose, and proper dissection carried on without offending any individual in the community.”
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SOURCE: USA TODAY, Javonte Anderson