The Legacy of Tuskegee Complicates African Americans’ Feelings About Vaccines

A Black scientist’s plea to lean into the data, even as an unjust health care shadow persists in the U.S.

Jen Payne
Published in
5 min readAug 31, 2020


Photo: Marko Geber/Getty Images

I believe vaccinations are an important part of health maintenance. Every year, I get a flu vaccine and encourage my adult children to do the same. So, I was surprised when some of my friends and family members shared with me that they had no plans to take the vaccine for Covid-19 when and if it becomes available.

At least, they specified, they would not be the first in line.

Though my initial reaction was one of surprise, I realized this reluctance is part of a larger conversation — especially in the Black community. Initially, I was puzzled as to where this reluctance came from. As a scientist with a PhD in pathology who has worked in health care for more than 20 years, I tend to make decisions based on empirical data. However, as an African American woman, I have also come to appreciate the historical context of race and science.

In 1972, the Tuskegee experiment, a 40-year study of 600 African American men untreated for syphilis, came to an end. An article published by Jean Heller of the Associated Press prompted the public outrage. By the time the study was finally shut down, almost 130 included men had died due to syphilis and complications caused by the disease. Many had passed the disease on to their spouses and children.

This U.S. government-run study, executed by the agency known at the time as the United States Public Health Service, was not a secret to many in the health care community. It went on for four decades with physicians, nurses, and others knowingly and willingly monitoring men who they knew would die without treatment for the disease.

As a scientist, I know the importance of clinical studies… But as an African-American woman, I also understand my…