The African American who introduce inoculation to the Western World
Commentary: Black Scientists, Explorers, and Inventors
By dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
Fears and misinformation surrounding inoculation and vaccination are old themes in American culture. One piece of this disinformation campaign lost to history is that the principles of inoculation were first introduced to the Western world by a black African slave in Boston Massachusetts. But then just as now fear, racism, and religious bias lead to inoculation’s widespread rejection in the 1700s just as with the modern Covid vaccination campaigns
Onesimus (late 1600s–1700s) was a black man instrumental in the mitigation of a major 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston, Massachusetts. Onesimus birth name is unknown. He was at some point enslaved and given in 1706 to a New England Puritan minister named Cotton Mather, who renamed Onesimus. Mather was the Puritan minister of Boston’s North Church (he was also a prominent figure in the Salem Witch Trials). Mather renamed his slave after a first-century slave mentioned in the Bible. The name, "Onesimus" means useful, helpful, or profitable.
I first heard of Onesimus growing up near Boston, but I didn’t know much about him other than he was part of the local black folklore. It was only years later watching PBS that I learned more about him. I was recently think that maybe he should be promoted as an antidote to many anti-vaxxers who have tried to worm their way into black cultural spaces.
Little is known of Onesimus early life as he was just one of the millions of Africans kidnapped from West Africa, and forced into a perilous transatlantic slave trade. Yet from these terrible beginnings Onesimus changed the course of history by spurring the first recorded use of inoculation in the New World. Onesimus’ knowledge helped pave the way for the development of the first vaccines 75 years later.
In 1721 a terrifying news swept colonial Massachusetts, Smallpox had arrived in Boston and was spreading rapidly. The first victims, passengers on a ship from the Caribbean, were shut in a house identified only by a red flag reading “God have mercy on this house.” Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of the bustling colonial town started to flee for their lives, terrified of exposing themselves to the deadly disease.
The colony’s fear was palpable as the smallpox virus was extremely contagious, quickly spreading into large epidemics. Smallpox’s victims experienced fever, fatigue and a crusty rash that could leave disfiguring scars. In up to 30 percent of cases, the victims perished.
But this smallpox epidemic of 1721 would be different. As the virus swept the city, killing hundreds, Onesimus suggested a way to keep people from getting infected. In this time before modern medical treatment or a robust understanding of infectious disease, Onesimus was one of the few people in the city with the knowledge to slow the outbreak. Intrigued by Onesimus’ methods, a brave doctor and an outspoken minister undertook a bold experiment to try to stop the smallpox plague.
At first Cotton Mather didn’t trust Onesimus: he wrote about having to watch him carefully due to what he thought was “thievish” behavior, and recorded in his diary that he was “wicked” and “useless.” But in 1716, Onesimus told him something he did believe: That he knew how to prevent smallpox.
Onesimus, who “is a pretty intelligent fellow,” Mather wrote, told him he had had smallpox, and then hadn’t. Onesimus said that he “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it...and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”
Onesimus introduced Mather to the principles and procedures of inoculation to prevent disease. By doing this he laid the foundation for the modern development of vaccines. After a smallpox outbreak began in Boston in 1721, Mather used this knowledge to advocate for inoculation in the population, a practice that eventually spread to other colonies.
Although Onesimus's name at birth and place of birth are not unknown, Mather referred to the ethnicity of Onesimus as "Guaramantee", which may refer to the Coromantee (the Akan people of modern Ghana). Mather described Onesimus as highly intelligent and educated him in reading and writing with the Mather family (for context, according to biographer Kathryn Koo, at that time literacy was primarily associated with religious instruction, and writing as means of note-taking and conducting business).
In 1716 Onesimus described to Mather the process of inoculation that had been performed on him and others in his African society (as Mather later reported in a letter): "People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cut the Skin, and put in a drop." In the book, African Medical Knowledge, the Plain Style, and Satire in the 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, Kelly Wisecup wrote that Onesimus is believed to have been inoculated at some point before being sold into slavery or during the slave trade, as he most likely traveled from the Caribbean to Boston. The process he described, variolation method of inoculation was long practiced in Africa among sub-Saharan people. The practice was widespread among enslaved people from many regions of Africa and, throughout the slave trade in the Americas.
The operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. It wasn’t a vaccination, which involves exposure to a less dangerous virus to provoke immunity. But it did activate the recipient’s immune response and protected against the disease most of the time.
Mather was fascinated. He verified Onesimus’ story with that of other enslaved people, and learned that the practice had been used in Turkey and China. He became an evangelist for inoculation, also known as variolation, and spread the word throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in the hopes it would help prevent smallpox.
Mather believed Onesimus's medicinal advice because, as he wrote, "inferiority had not yet been indelibly written onto the bodies of Africans." Additionally, Mather believed that disease, specifically smallpox, was a spiritual and physical punishment, so he saw a cure as "God's providential gift", as well as a means of receiving recognition from New England society and reestablishing the influence of religious figures in politics. But when Boston experienced that smallpox outbreak in 1721, Mather promoted inoculation as protection against it. He cited Onesimus’ African folk medicine as the source of the procedure.
But Mather hadn’t bargained on how unpopular Onesimus's idea would be. The same prejudices that caused him to distrust his servant made other white colonists reluctant to undergo a medical procedure developed by Black people. His advocacy for inoculation met resistance from those suspicious of African medicine. Doctors, ministers, laymen, and Boston city officials argued that the practice of inoculating healthy individuals would spread the disease and that it was immoral to interfere with the working of divine providence
Mather “was vilified,” historian Ted Widmer wrote that “A local newspaper, called The New England Courant, ridiculed him. An explosive device was thrown through his windows with an angry note. There was an ugly racial element to the anger.” Religion also contributed: Other preachers argued that it was against God’s will to expose his creatures to dangerous diseases.
Mather was also publicly ridiculed for relying on the testimony of a slave. It was a commonly fear during colonial times that enslaved Africans would attempt to overthrow of white society. Because of this fear the medicinal wisdom of Onesimus was severely mistrusted and assumed to be a plot to poison white citizens. The fact that the Massachusetts colony had passed The Acts and Resolves which included race-based punishments and codes to prevent slave or servant uprisings was an illustration of a society highly skeptical of African medicine.
But in 1721 Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who supported the technique, got their chance to test the power of inoculation. Boylston using Mather’s notes carried out the method Onesimus had described. Boylston stuck a needle into a pustule from an infected person's body and scraping the infected needle across a healthy person's skin. Dr. Boylston inoculated his own six-year-old son and two of his slaves. A total of 280 individuals were inoculated during the 1721-22 Boston smallpox epidemic.
Smallpox was one of the era’s deadliest afflictions. “Few diseases at this time were as universal or fatal,” notes historian Susan Pryor. The colonists saw its effects not just among their own countrymen, but among the Native Americans to whom they introduced the disease. Smallpox destroyed Native communities that, with no immunity, were unable to fight off the virus.
But the population of 280 inoculated patients experienced only six deaths (approx. 2.2 percent), compared to 844 deaths among the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients (approx. 14.3 percent). It wasn’t a cure but yielded hope against future epidemics. Onesimus technique also helped set the stage for vaccination. In 1796, Edward Jenner developed an effective vaccine that used cowpox to provoke smallpox immunity.
An inscription on his tomb incorrectly identifies Boylston as the "first" to have introduced the practice of inoculation into America. Recognition for Onesimus contribution to medical science came slowly. But by 2016 he was placed among the 100 Best Bostonians of All Time in a Boston magazine survey. Historian Ted Widmer of CUNY New York noted that “Onesimus reversed many of [the colonists’] traditional racial assumptions... [h]e had a lot more knowledge medically than most of the Europeans in Boston at that time.
Onesimus earned enough independent wages support a household for himself and his wife met while serving the Mather family. It is unclear whether his wife was a free woman. They had two children, both of whom died before they were ten years old. His son, Onesimulus, died in 1714.[Katy, his second child, died due to consumption. After their deaths, Mather attempted to convert Onesimus to Christianity, overtures Onesimus rejected. Mather saw his inability to convert his slave as his failure as a Puritan evangelist and head of his household, as Onesimus’ refusal was supposed to bring God's displeasure on the Mather family. Onesimus’ refusal to convert led to Mather's unhappiness with his presence in the household. Mather's diary reports "stubborn behavior" from Onesimus following the death of his children.
In 1716, Onesimus attempted to buy his freedom from Mather, raising funds to "purchase" another enslaved man, named Obadiah, to take his place. But Mather placed conditions on Onesimus release, requiring that he remain available to perform work in the Mather household at their command and return five pounds that Mather claimed that Onesimus had stolen from him.. Historians at first attributed Onesimus’ release to Mather’s distrust after the alleged theft, but Mather's diaries better support Mather's inability to convert Onesimus as his primary motivation to allowing Onesimus to purchase his freedom.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox entirely eradicated due to the spread of immunization worldwide. It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out.
NEWS ROUND UP BY DOPPER0189, BLACK KOS MANAGING EDITOR
To understand what’s happening right now with critical race theory, it helps to go back to when the idea was first germinated in the 1970s. During that time, Derrick Bell, who’d become the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, was researching racism wasn’t just about individual choices, but structural—baked into systems, legal and otherwise, that people come up against in their lives. Bell’s ideas gained purchase among other Ivy League scholars, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, who helped organized a 1989 conference called “New Developments in Critical Race Theory,” effectively giving this new field a name. Bell and his compatriots tried all kinds of ways to impart his big idea—that American law is imbued with racial bigotry—to the broadest possible audience, from sci-fi stories to discursive books that were recommended in universities. But in recent times, the theory behind these stories has been infamously squashed and twisted by Republicans and conservative pundits. After decades of use within academia, how did critical race theory become so controversial, so quickly? To find out, I spoke with Adam Harris, a staff writer at the Atlantic who was introduced to critical race theory during college, on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Adam Harris: As a framework for understanding, race in American law, critical race theory has been, for academics, a very useful tool. But the problem is that, as with other academic frameworks and theories, it gets distorted when it leaves academia.
Mary Harris: I was surprised by how long these three words—critical race theory—had been used as a conservative boogeyman. Never been as much as now, but it’s come up before. Like Lani Guinier, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be an assistant attorney general, her nomination was scuttled partially because of discussion about critical race theory. Can you talk about when these three words were seized on in order to criticize people, especially Democrats?
Lani Guinier’s nomination was one of the first times you really saw the theory show up in a major way—when Democrats backed away, they were all effectively saying she was too radical and CRT too divisive of a concept. But then it kind of went dormant in the broader conversation. You saw a mention of it when Derrick Bell died in 2011 and a video resurfaced of President Barack Obama introducing Bell when Obama was a student in the 1990s. Conservatives said this was evidence the president was consorting with radicals. And that was the first mention of CRT on Fox News. The second instance is a throwaway mention after George Zimmerman acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Then you don’t really hear about it much. There are about four or five mentions in between Zimmerman’s acquittal and June 2020, right after George Floyd is murdered by Derek Chauvin. Then people take to the streets, and you start to see a pushback to this fundamental reassessment of the gaps and inequities in American society.
We takin’ over, y’all. By we, I mean Delaware State University, as they are the first HBCU in history to acquire a predominately white school.
According to WHYY, DSU announced last year that it intended to acquire Wesley College and it officially completed its takeover late last week. As a result of the takeover, DSU will gain 50 acres, 21 buildings, 14 academic programs, as well as 71 former Wesley faculty and staff members. “This is an unprecedented landmark in the long history of HBCUs,” former DSU president Harry Williams told WHYY. “I am not surprised that Delaware State University is leading the way.”
The only time a similar situation has occurred was in 1977, and that was only because a court ordered that the University of Tennessee at Nashville merge with Tennessee State University.
In 2019, DSU’s enrollment topped 5,000 for the first time, with 5,027 students attending its undergraduate, graduate and online programs throughout the pandemic. “My intention is to grow our institution to about 10,000 folks over the next couple years, and this is a jump-start to that opportunity,” DSU president Tony Allen told the news outlet. “There is real, and I do mean real, opportunity for us to grow the organization and to do that smartly.”
Whether dribbling a basketball or identifying obscure Latin or Greek roots, Zaila Avant-garde doesn’t show much stress.
The 14-year-old from Harvey, Louisiana, breezed to the championship at the Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday night, becoming the first African American winner and only the second Black champion in the bee’s 96-year history.
Zaila has described spelling as a side hobby, although she routinely practised for seven hours a day. She is a basketball prodigy who hopes to play some day in the WNBA and holds three Guinness world records for dribbling multiple balls simultaneously.
Zaila twirled and leaped with excitement after spelling the winning word, “murraya”, a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees.
But I was writing about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock before Summer of Soul (... Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) came out. In hindsight, after watching this absolutely spectacular barnburner of a concert documentary, I’m sad we weren’t talking about Harlem ’69 alongside Woodstock ’69.
Sad, but not particularly surprised it wasn’t on our collective radar.
Hopefully, you don’t need much convincing to watch Summer of Soul (and you have two options, on Hulu or, better, in a theater). Ahmir Thompson, a.k.a. Questlove, directed the film, which is mostly a concert documentary comprised of astounding, never-before-seen footage.
In 1969, following a tumultuous year in America generally and New York City specifically, the city announced a series of concerts to take place over six weekends in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), nestled into the heart of Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood at the epicenter of Black cultural life. About 300,000 people attended in total (Woodstock, 100 miles to the north, attracted around 400,000). They called the event the Harlem Cultural Festival. The coffee brand Maxwell House was the sponsor. Jesse Jackson and Mayor John Lindsay showed up.
The main attraction was the music. And what a lineup! Nina Simone. B.B. King. Gladys Knight and the Pips. Mahalia Jackson. Pops Staples and the Staples Sisters, one of whom was named Mavis. The 5th Dimension. Herbie Mann. The Edwin Hawkins Singers. Mongo Santamaria. Moms Mabley. Max Roach. Stevie Wonder. Sly and the Family Stone, for whose performance the NYPD refused to provide security, so the Black Panthers did instead. There was Motown and gospel, soul and funk. And that’s just scratching the surface.
The entire series of concerts was filmed by a crew (just like Woodstock), with director and producer Al Tulchin at the helm. But in Summer of Soul, Tulchin explains that he tried to sell the footage for broadcast afterward, billing it as “Black Woodstock” to explain what the event had been, and found no takers. “Nobody cared about Harlem,” he says.
Sports journalist Maria Taylor, who has been at the center of accusations of racial favoritism at ESPN and specific acts of racism by colleague Rachel Nichols, is finally breaking her silence.
Other than doing her job as a commentator for NBA games on the network, Taylor has been silent on both Twitter and Instagram — until Wednesday.
“During the dark times, I always remember that I am in this position to open doors and light the path that others walk down,” she wrote in a tweet with photos attached featuring happier professional days. “I’ve taken some punches but that just means I’m still in the fight. Remember to lift as you climb and always KEEP RISING.” Her words were followed by a heart emoji.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave insight into the president's mood when theGrio inquired about his support for police reform and voting rights, as well as strengthening the Civil Rights Act of 1866. The Grio: Biden ‘frustrated’ over stalled civil rights bills critical for Black America
President Joe Biden is said to be “frustrated” over what some call the collapse of the current police reform negotiations and a stall on voting rights legislation on Capitol Hill. Sources inside the Biden-Harris administration, however, say the White House is closely watching the movement and anticipating positive outcomes in present negotiations in hopes that the legislative packages will be passed.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would reform police departments nationwide, as well as the voting rights bills, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and For The People Act, are largely seen as crucial pieces of legislation that would address racial inequities that critically impact Black and brown communities.
Sources also note that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, given the evenly divided Senate, holds the keys as to whether voting rights and police reform will succeed or fail in the upper chamber.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki gave insight into the president’s mood when theGrio inquired during Tuesday’s press briefing about his support for strengthening another policy issue critical to racial equity: the oldest federal civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has won the Democratic primary for mayor of New York City after appealing to the political center and promising to strike the right balance between fighting crime and ending racial injustice in policing.
A former police captain, Adams would be the city's second Black mayor if elected.
He triumphed over a large field in New York's first major race to use ranked choice voting.
Adams' closest vanquished rivals included former city sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia, who campaigned as a technocrat and proven problem-solver, and former City Hall legal advisor Maya Wiley, who had progressive support including an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Andrew Yang, the 2020 presidential candidate known for his proposed universal basic income, was an early favorite but faded in the race.
The president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, has been assassinated in his private residence by a group of armed men who also seriously injured his wife, according to a statement from the interim prime minister’s office.
Speaking on a local radio station, the prime minister, Claude Joseph, confirmed the killing of Moïse, saying the attack had been carried out by an “armed commando group” that included foreign elements.
“Around one o’clock in the morning, during the night of Tuesday 6 to Wednesday 7 July 2021, a group of unidentified individuals, including some speaking Spanish, attacked the private residence of the president and fatally injured the head of state,” Joseph said in a statement quoted in the media.
Condemning “this odious, inhuman and barbaric act”, Joseph sought to reassure Haitians, saying the security situation in the country remained calm.
He added that Moïse’s wife, Martine, had been seriously injured in the attack. An official speaking anonymously to the Associated Press also confirmed Moïse’s death.
First Lady of Haiti Martine Moïse was airlifted out of the country and transported to Miami after being shot during the attack that killed her husband, Haiti President Jovenel Moïse, early Wednesday.
Mrs. Moïse, 47, was transported to Fort Lauderdale from the sovereign nation and then taken to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, Local 10 News reported.
According to the report, she was wounded with gunshots to her arms, her thigh and had severe injuries to her hand and abdomen. Police surrounded her as she was taken off the air ambulance and put into a private one for transport to the hospital.
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