Events & exhibitions

Medical Racism from 1619 to the Present: History Matters

A black and white photo of six volunteer women nurse aides of color receiving training from a woman staff nurse of color.
Volunteer nurse aides in training at the segregated Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D.C.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States. In addition, the uneven and unequal distribution of vaccines is raising the issue of mistrust and vaccine hesitancy in these same communities. Lack of trust in the US healthcare system among communities of color is inextricably linked to the history of systemic racism in this country. With fewer than half of Black American adults indicating that they will definitely or probably get vaccinated against COVID-19, understanding the roots of this hesitancy—which dates back centuries—is critical to battling the disease.

Discussions of medical racism often focus on a set of famous tragic cases, while failing to address the longer history of the systematic medical neglect and abuse of African American health. Speakers on this panel will examine the roots in slavery of contemporary African American mistrust of the healthcare system, the lack of trust in medical providers fostered by experiences of everyday racism, and the African American community’s long dependence, born of necessity, on care from within the community.

Join us to explore how a deeper understanding of our history can help us promote health equity in the present.

This program is presented as part of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, a University-wide effort housed at Harvard Radcliffe Institute, in collaboration with the Project on Race & Gender in Science & Medicine at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.

Event Video

Volunteer nurses aides at Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1943 Courtesy of the Library of Congress


  • Jim Downs, Gilder Lehrman NEH Chair of Civil War Era Studies and History, Gettysburg College
  • Susan M. Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor Emerita in the History of Ideas and professor emerita of women’s and gender studies, Wellesley College
  • Moderated by Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the Department of the History of Science, Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science, and professor of African and African American studies, Harvard University

More Events & Exhibitions

01 / 03