Celebrating Black History in the Midst of a Public Health Crisis

2 minute read

Jeanne C. Tedrow, President & CEO, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

This year, we celebrate Black History Month as we look to the future and hope for this pandemic to pass. With focus on the COVID-19 vaccine and the hope it brings to our communities, it is noteworthy that one of the first people to introduce the practice of inoculation to America was Onesimus, an enslaved Black man from the Massachusetts colony.

Brought to America from Africa, Onesimus introduced the traditional African practice of inoculation to a Puritan church minister and doctor that experimented with the method during a small pox epidemic in Boston. Even though evidence suggested the inoculations helped lower deaths during the outbreak, there was broad reaction against it. When the practice was used again in the Revolutionary War, the concept became more widely spread through the United States.

Last March, when it became clear that we were facing a global pandemic, we knew no community would be spared. Nonprofits stepped in as they always do to provide critical support – food, shelter, transportation, human services, child care – in communities in all 100 counties of North Carolina, often in partnership with the public sector. Nonprofit employees providing these resources were deemed “essential” workers and as a result, many continued their caregiving role face-to-face rather than remotely. As trusted institutions in their communities, nonprofits became distributors of personal protective equipment and sanitizing solutions, and providers of clear and accurate information to help those they served adapt to the rapidly changing situation.

One year into the pandemic, nonprofits continue to be on the front lines helping their communities address the pandemic’s challenges and acknowledge that it has disproportionately affected communities of color. With the growing availability of vaccines, we are learning that individuals in these same communities are less likely to get the vaccine because of our society’s history of racism and fear from our unfortunate history of using African Americans for experimentation, most notably in the Tuskegee Study.

Just as the earliest inoculation was introduced to us by a Black American, the vaccine to inoculate us against the COVID-19 virus has been developed by a young African American, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. Dr. Corbett's team collaborated with Moderna to build on scientific knowledge gained over the last six years and apply it to the vaccine platform. In 10 months, they developed and rolled out the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Corbett and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, are also working together to encourage widespread participation in the vaccine, notably dispelling the fear of taking it.

“In a time where vaccine skepticism is high among African Americans, Corbett hopes Black people will put faith in the vaccine and faith in the scientists working behind the scenes to bring it to the American people.” (Meet the Black Female Scientist at the Forefront of COVID-19 Vaccine Development, CBS News, January 9, 2021)

The Center’s Nonprofit Policy Update reminds us: Nonprofits are trusted messengers, and many North Carolinians are more likely to take important health actions if the message comes from a familiar nonprofit organization rather than a government official.

Nonprofits, especially POC-led organizations, can play an important role in helping overcome fears, reduce barriers, and provide clear and accurate information about the availability, safety, and importance of COVID-19 vaccines because they are familiar with and trusted within communities of color.

In doing this, we will make a big difference in fighting COVID-19 while we recognize and celebrate the historic contributions of African Americans.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services has toolkits, videos, and other resources for organizations to share and help spread the word about safe vaccination, including: