CoronavirusHealthNewsThe NorthSider

Systemic racism tied to Black reluctance to get COVID-19 shots

ST. LOUIS – When Samuel Kennedy was 7, he ran for his life to escape a bloodthirsty white mob in the East St. Louis race riots of 1917.

Samuel grew up to be a political leader in St. Louis’ African-American community, as did his son Terry. The riots on the East Side more than a century ago were among a long list of examples of racism they always kept on their minds.

Terry Kennedy

That may explain some of the reasons why Terry Kennedy hasn’t decided whether he’ll be vaccinated against COVID-19, and why a number of his friends won’t get shots.

“I have not gotten a vaccination at this point,” Kennedy said. “Few family members have as well. We are still discussing it and considering it.”

A historian of his community, a former alderman and clerk of the Board of Aldermen, Kennedy can mention a long list of ways doctors have mistreated African-Americans.

But, he said, it’s impossible to consider whether to get a shot outside the context of systemic racism in general. 

Flames destroy a building in the 1917 race riots in East St. Louis.

For Kennedy, that includes a horrid family story about how his father and several other family members fled from a mob that attacked their home, setting it on fire, and shot at them. After escaping from a side window of their house, they hid in tall grass for about 12 hours. They made their way to the river and cobbled together a raft that took them to St. Louis.  

“It’s the Black experience,” said Kennedy, who represented the 18th Ward from 1989 to 2019 and chaired the aldermanic African-American Caucus. His father represented the same ward from 1967 to 1988.   

Many Black clergy are painfully aware that large numbers of African-Americans have had similar experiences that would make them reluctant to get shots. Nonetheless, church leaders are active in urging their congregations and neighbors to get the shots.

One of those church leaders is Pastor Anthony Witherspoon of the Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church, at 630 N. Garrison Avenue in the Midtown neighborhood.  

Anthony Witherspoon

“African-Americans in times past have undergone a series of various tests; they have been used as guinea pigs,” Witherspoon said. “You can go all the way back to the Tuskegee experiment.” 

In the Tuskegee experiment in Alabama in the 1930s, doctors doomed hundreds of Black men to painful deaths from syphilis by deliberately preventing them from receiving medicine that would have cured them.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton officially apologized for the cruel medical tests, but the damage was done. As a result, many African-American looked with suspicion on medical advances. 

It’s understandable that people would be reluctant to be vaccinated because of actions in the past, Witherspoon said.

“We try to educate our people as best as possible, because education is possible and gives them the facts about what’s really going on,” he explained.

A statue of James Marion Sims is hauled out of Central Park.

The tales of white medical sins against African-Americans go back to James Marion Sims, a 19th-century doctor who is called the father of modern gynecology. He’s known for developing ways to treat and perform surgery in regards to women’s reproductive health. But he’s been condemned for doing torturous research on Black women without anesthesia.

Somehow, Sims believed that Black people didn’t feel pain.

Here in St. Louis, the Cold War led to potentially deadly experiments at schools, from moving station wagons and on the top of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing development in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Army used blowers to scatter a fluorescent powder called zinc cadmium sulfide throughout African-American neighborhoods. The government claimed it was testing a smoke screen that could protect St. Louis from being seen from the sky should Russians attack.

However, the government admitted in 1994 that it was really doing it  as part of biological weapons tests. St. Louis bore some similarity to cities in Russia the U.S. might attack, the government said.  

“They sure didn’t do that kind of testing in Clayton,” Kennedy said.

Tests aren’t the only thing that made African-Americans suspicious. African-Americans who went to Barnes Hospital got treatment in the basement. And Black nurses had to make sure white doctors didn’t neglect African-American patients. 

“These concerns are really based on real-life experiences,” Kennedy said.

While those incidents have added to uneasiness among Blacks about a new treatment, Kennedy said former President Donald Trump had made things worse.

It would help, though, if African Americans would see people like themselves getting the message out, he said. 

Witherspoon is confident enough in the shots that he’s been vaccinated himself. 

“I say from the pulpit that as a leader, I only encourage people to take advantage of every opportunity that’s for the good and prosperity in the community,” he said. Because he got the shots, some of his parishioners who were on the fence also decided to be vaccinated. 

“Everything hinges around our spiritual lives, you know, spirituality is important for everything that we do in everyday life,” Witherspoon said.  

From the beginning of the pandemic, Witherspoon’s church has done whatever it can to prevent the spread of the virus, including having a modified worship service with a limited number of people and practicing social distancing. That church also uses doctors and nurses to educate people about the vaccine. It recently hosted a vaccination drive. 

“We don’t try to force people to take the vaccine, but we offer them the opportunity to do so with that knowledge and background of what is true,” Witherspoon said. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported on Monday that 38 percent of whites and 24 percent of Blacks had received at least one dose of a vaccine in 43 states that reported information by race or ethnicity. Twenty-five percent of Hispanics and 45 percent of Asians had received at least one dose.

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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