“Our Nation was founded on an idea: that all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated with equal dignity throughout our lives. It is a promise we have never fully lived up to but one that we have never, ever walked away from. The long shadows of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining — and the blight of systemic racism that still diminishes our Nation today — hold America back from reaching our full promise and potential. But by facing those tragedies openly and honestly and working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise of equity and dignity for all, we become a stronger Nation — a more perfect version of ourselves.”
– Excerpt from President Joe Biden’s Proclamation on National Black History Month, February 2022
As the nation kicks off February in recognition of the historical journey of Black Americans – from enslavement to Emancipation, from Reconstruction to Civil Rights – Oregon’s State Senate Democratic leadership unveiled its Caucus Agenda for the 2022 Legislative Session, and the battle for “America’s promise of equity and dignity for all” moves forward.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner stated that, “the pandemic continues to show us the important work we must do, watching out for those struggling around the state.” He went on to say, “Oregon Senate Democrats are committed to making sure every community in the state gets the support they need during these challenging times.” Adding to this focus on public health and the economy, Senator Kate Lieber emphasized the point that, “Our decisions reflect our values, and this session our focus is on uplifting historically underserved communities and building an economy that works for all Oregonians.”
Not surprisingly, with our country having suffered through two years of a coronavirus pandemic, in which Black Americans have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19, the words of the Democratic Senate leadership are timely and encouraging. They are clearly relevant to a celebration and a journey in which Black Oregonians, and other communities of color, are working to enact policies that will push our state and our country toward a future grounded in justice, equity and dignity for all. High among these policy priorities are full access to equitable, affordable health care, full access to the ballot box, improved housing and job opportunities, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, climate change, and more.
In carefully examining the highly appropriate theme of Black Health and Wellness, while there is much to be celebrated, it is important to remember the underlying history of inhumanity and injustice; the impacts of which are yet present and must not be ignored or forgotten. Any attempt to whitewash this facet of American history, such as the current efforts by extremists to deny the teaching of history through a lens of racial equity, only serves to impede our path to a more perfect union.
The theme of Black Health and Wellness highlights how some of the nation’s most important medical and scientific innovations are owed directly to Black people. We must honor and celebrate those who, during and after slavery, were used as human guinea pigs without their knowledge or consent. We must remember the “medical hell” of experimental surgeries, exclusively on enslaved Black women by J. Marion Sims to help develop the field of gynecology. We must never forget the legacy of Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were used without her informed consent, to conduct cancer research and to develop the polio vaccine. And we must sadly memorialize one of the worst horrors of modern medical research: the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in Black males.
Once again, we are reminded in President Biden’s words, that by “facing those tragedies openly and honestly, and working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise of equity and dignity for all, we become a stronger nation.”
Thankfully all has not been all negative in the American history of segregated health care in the African American community. Many Black pioneers, clinicians, researchers, and advocates championed health and wellness and advanced medicine in America and beyond. In our celebration of Black History Month, it is important to remember that as early as 1721, during a smallpox outbreak in Boston, a slave called Onesimus by his owner was instrumental in teaching others the African roots of inoculation in America. He is often referred to as the enslaved man who saved colonial Boston from smallpox. How wonderful it is that we can celebrate in 2022 how, in 1893, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams performed the first successful open heart surgery. And how that during World War II, Dr. Charles Drew developed the method for preserving blood plasma that has saved millions of lives. Most recently, in 2020 we honored present-day innovator Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who led the team of scientists who developed the vaccine to immunize Americans against COVID-19.
So, this Black History Month, let’s celebrate together the resilience, achievements, and contributions of Black Americans from slavery to freedom, while remaining grounded by the work that still lies ahead: America’s Promise of Equity and Dignity for All.
Rosa Colquitt, PhD
Democratic Party of Oregon Vice Chair
Chair, Democratic Party of Oregon Black Caucus