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event • Lectures

Medical Racism from 1619 to the Present: History Matters

A sepia-toned photo of a mansion and slave quarters, in Medford, Massachusetts.
In the 18th century, the Royall House was home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts. It was a bequest from Isaac Royall Jr. that funded the establishment of Harvard Law School in 1817. In 2016, the Harvard Corporation approved the removal of the Law School’s shield, which was derived directly from the Royall coat of arms. Harvard Fine Arts Library Special Collections

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.


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

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.


Free and open to the public. To view this event online, individuals will need to register via Zoom.

For instructions on how to join, see the How to Attend a Radcliffe Event on Zoom webpage.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation e-mail containing a link and password for this meeting.

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