HANDOUT - Participants in the Tuskegee study in Davisville, Alabama in this 1954 photograph. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was an unethical experiment by the U.S. Public Health Service tracking the progression of the disease in a poor sharecropper population in rural Alabama. (National Archives)

Last Updated on March 13, 2022 by BVN

Breanna Reeves |

California lifts several COVID-19 pandemic restrictions as the state approaches the second anniversary of the initial stay-at-home order issued on March 18, 2020, communities of color still struggle with low vaccination rates.

In an effort to address vaccine hesitancy among Black communities and communities of color in San Bernardino County, the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators (CAAASA) partnered with the San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) and hosted an informational town hall on March 9th.

The town hall discussion aimed to encourage the community to get vaccinated while also addressing misinformation and disinformation regarding the United States’ history of conducting public health studies on 623 Black men without their consent.

Mis- Disinformation Regarding the Tuskegee Experiment

The discussion was moderated by Wallace Allen, West Side Story Newspaper publisher and featured several speakers, notably descendants of the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and Macon County, Alabama, formerly known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Lillie Tyson Head, daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson who was a victim of the study and President of Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, addressed the fact that the study has been used as a reference point for why Black people mistrust COVID-19 vaccines.

A doctor appears to inject a syringe into a Black man during the syphilis study which was conducted from 1932 to 1972 (Image courtesy of CDC).

“This study should definitely not be used as reasons for not getting vaccinated. It has been used and it has been talked about, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m here representing the descendants and the foundation — to encourage everyone not to make a comparison, but to see and realize the contrast,” said Tyson.

Tyson acknowledged that the history of the study affects attitudes toward trusting the validity of vaccines, but encouraged people to rely on medical science, facts and medical interventions as a source of validity. 

She also emphasized key differences between the syphilis study and the COVID-19 pandemic, namely, the men in the study were denied access to treatment (Penicillin) during the study, while now, Black people are denying themselves access to treatment.

“Here, today, we have the opportunity to get vaccinated and if we deny ourselves of the vaccination, we will be doing the same as the government had done to those men, so we shouldn’t do that,” Tyson stated.

The Roots of Hesitancy

Another descendant of a victim of the study, Eric Patterson, pointed out that skepticism regarding [the vaccine] is a result of a legacy of American history that has left Black people vulnerable since stepping foot into America in 1619 and has lasted throughout a history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era.

Patterson explained that two key variables play a role in why Black Americans have a hard time trusting: historical mistreatment and systemic racism. 

In order to improve the relationship among African Americans, Patterson explained that local leaders must work with governmental and private organizations to improve education, healthcare and the criminal justice system as it relates and impacts underserved communities.

In honor of my mother

Dr. Brenda Ross, assistant professor of Maternal and Fetal Medicine at the University of California, Riverside joined the panel, and spoke about the personal impact COVID-19 had on her. Ross’s mother died after contracting the virus from a family member who was living in the home.

“And so if I don’t do it for any other reason, I have to honor my mother’s memory by saying, had she had the vaccine available, she would be here today. When she died, the vaccine wasn’t available,” Ross said. “So, it’s tantamount, it’s of paramount importance, it’s absolutely necessary that when you choose to not be vaccinated, that you recognize the consequences of that. And it’s just not personal for you, it affects your home, your family, your community.” 

Dr. Ross acknowledged that some people may be shy about sharing that they’re afraid to be vaccinated, but she explained that it’s okay to be afraid because that’s where education comes in to help people ask questions regarding the vaccine. 

Across San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, local organizations and churches have partnered with local health departments to educate and provide access to testing and vaccination services within their communities.

Ecclesia Christian Fellowship has hosted COVID-19 vaccination and testing clinics at the church throughout the pandemic (Image courtesy of Facebook).

Dr. Joshua Beckley, senior pastor at Ecclesia Christian Fellowship, said that his church has been used as a testing site and vaccination site throughout the pandemic. Long before the pandemic, Beckley and his church launched a health ministry to address health disparities within the community and keep the congregation informed by hosting educational workshops and encouraging people to get regular health checks.

My people perish

“One of the things I understand from a biblical perspective [is] our people perish for a lack of knowledge, the Bible says,” Beckley stated. “And one of the things I intended to do as this pandemic began to rage havoc through our community, was to provide a platform of information.” 

Beckley said that he is concerned about the infection rate and the low vaccination rate in the community he serves within the city of San Bernardino. According to the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard, approximately 57% of the eligible population (5 years old and older) in the city is fully vaccinated.

The green bars show the percent of the population that is fully vaccinated in San Bernardino County (Image via SBCDPH COVID-19 Dashboard).

In San Bernardino County, among the eligible population, 30.9% of African Americans are fully vaccinated, 43.5% of Latinos are fully vaccinated and 18.6% of American Indians are fully vaccinated. Older residents have higher vaccination rates compared to younger residents, with elders between the ages of 65 to 69 having the highest vaccination rate at 81.7%, followed by those between the ages of 70 to 74 who have a vaccination rate of 78.8%.

Mask mandates changing for schools

With mask mandates ending across schools in California as of March 12, San Bernardino City Unified School District will also host vaccine clinics at schools throughout the region, in partnership with the CAAASA. 

The district released the following statement regarding the updated guidance on masks: “Wearing masks in SBCUSD schools will be optional beginning March 12, 2022. While the statewide school masking mandate goes away Saturday, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and SBCUSD continue to recommend face coverings as a personal choice to protect against COVID-19 exposure. SBCUSD will continue to provide masks for anyone who would like to wear them on school campuses and in District buildings.”

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.