Vaccinating freedom: smallpox prevention and the discourses of African American citizenship in antebellum Philadelphia.

Author:DeLancey, Dayle B.

For historians of African American public health, the 2008 U.S. presidential election was a landmark event--not only because it produced the nation's first African American commander-in-chief, but also because unprecedented numbers of elderly African Americans received "flu shots" in the process. Considered wary of vaccination due to a long collective history of medical exploitation and neglect, African Americans have long ranked among those U.S. citizens least likely to avail themselves of preventive vaccines, resulting in low vaccination rates among black children, adults, and senior citizens alike. (1) Governmental and private agencies have devoted vast resources to correcting this disparity, encouraging many innovative outreach programs. (2) Among the most striking is "Vote and Vax," the Sickness Prevention Achieved through Regional Collaboration (SPARC) initiative that worked with community groups to bring influenza vaccination to polling places in 2008. Launched in 1996 and expanded in 2006 with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Vote and Vax" provides convenient polling-place vaccination to the elderly, who comprise the largest numbers of both registered U.S. voters and influenza fatalities. (3) Through such outreach, the program melds the civic responsibilities of the franchise with those long associated with vaccination. (4)

Almost a year before the 4 November 2008 election, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that "Vote and Vax 2008" would offer free influenza vaccination at 250 sites in thirty-five states and Washington, DC, on election day. (5) Some observers, noting that analysts expected Barack Obama's candidacy to increase African American voter participation exponentially, predicted a concomitant spike in the number of black elders consenting to polling-place vaccination. (6) Post-election reports vindicated these forecasts, as analysts concluded that "Vote and Vax" had immunized record numbers of African American senior citizens during the 2008 election. (7) If, as some researchers have argued, racial disparities in willingness to be vaccinated vary according to the characteristics of the vaccination program, then Barack Obama's presidential bid appears to have provided some African Americans with increased incentive for polling-place vaccination. (8)

With "Vote and Vax" pledged to participate in the approaching midterm elections of November 2010, this is an opportune moment to consider the historical antecedents of the 2008 presidential election's marriage of vaccination and African American political concerns. (9) Because effective vaccination campaigns encourage prevention among individuals in order to guard against the spread of disease within the larger population, they have traditionally appealed to civic duty in ways that blend politics and medical science. (10) Nonetheless, much of the press coverage of "Vote and Vax 2008" presupposed that the program's juxtaposition of vaccination and African Americans' national political interests was without precedent. (11) However, reporting of much older provenance, specifically that of the abolitionist and African American press that comprised black print culture in the United States in the four decades preceding the Civil War, presented smallpox vaccination as an integral part of African Americans' understanding of civic and political involvement. Within this antebellum print culture, vaccination featured in free, northern African Americans' efforts to demonstrate that both they and their enslaved brethren in the South were "fit for freedom," that is, possessed of the mental and physical soundness and commitment to civic engagement that qualified them for full citizenship rights. More importantly, this print culture promoted vaccination in order to encourage behaviors consistent with citizenship, including intellectual advancement and civic responsibility, among its African American readership.

This essay explores vaccination's role in this discursive citizenship ideal by focusing upon the experience of black Philadelphians, who comprised the largest African American community in the North in the antebellum period. While earlier research assessed the municipal and private means through which the city's African Americans secured vaccination, I consider black Philadelphians' attitudes toward vaccination, contrasting these views with prevailing medico-scientific and municipal interpretations. (12) In so doing, I illustrate that antebellum "fitness for freedom" discourse established compliance with and demonstration of scientific understanding of vaccination as embodiments of the citizenship ideal that free African Americans in the North sought. Conversely, inhibited access to vaccination reflected the lack of control that their enslaved southern brethren had over their own bodies and health decisions--a depiction that further reinforced vaccination as an emblem of freedom. In this way, I argue, black print culture promoted bodily vaccination in support of a larger citizenship project that laid claim to the body politic.


This larger struggle for citizenship was a significant undertaking during an era in which municipal officials not only ascribed the poor living conditions and high disease burdens of many black Philadelphians to racially determined deficiencies of body and mind, but also cited these inherent shortcomings as grounds to withhold civil rights and liberties. Because several cities adopted similar stances, free African Americans throughout the Northeast were acutely aware that such municipal responses paralleled contemporary rationales for keeping African Americans enslaved in the South. (13) The concept that African Americans were physiologically "unfit for freedom" simultaneously curtailed free African Americans' exercise of citizenship rights and barred enslaved African Americans from the status of citizens altogether. In Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War, historian Margaret Humphreys's assessment of the importance of Civil War era theories of black inferiority also applies in the antebellum period.

Contemporaries expected the black body to respond differently ... and for the most part found their expectations and prejudices displayed in ... medical statistics ... [T]he differential ... had a direct relevance to broader questions about ... adaptability to full American citizenship. For a time the black body in health and disease became central to the broader discourse on reinventing the American polity. (14) The civil restrictions that arose within this milieu had grim effects upon Philadelphia's African American community. Indeed, historians have long characterized the 1820s as the start of a long series of municipally legislated social restrictions that curtailed black Philadelphians' civil liberties and socioeconomic mobility until well after the Civil War. (15) When a sudden rise in southern "slave-catcher" incursions in the 1820s occasioned kidnappings among free blacks, municipal officials did little to intercede--a stance that drew sharp criticism when ten free black children were abducted in the city and sold into slavery in 1825 and 1826. (16) Similarly, in 1838 the city upheld Pennsylvania state legislators' 1837 repeal of African Americans' right to vote. (17) Throughout the 1830s state and municipal legislators strengthened 18th-century statutes limiting black Philadelphians' rights to free assembly. (18) This repression intensified in several significant 19th-century social shifts. When the large-scale Irish immigration of the 1820s and 1830s brought Irish and African Americans into competition for jobs, the result was anti-African American riots in which city officials often failed to intervene, despite disproportionately high black casualty rates. (19) Riots also erupted periodically throughout the 1830s and 1840s in response to local African Americans' public embrace of abolitionist causes. (20) By the 1850s, such events--along with black Philadelphians' increasing relegation to service industries in a city that now reserved skilled and industrial jobs for European immigrants--had created what Theodore Hershberg and the Philadelphia Social History Project (PSHP) describe as a "context of decline." (21)

Yet, this was also a period in which the city's African Americans engaged in what Julie Winch has termed "a struggle for autonomy," banding together to form social and political institutions that, as Hershberg and the PSHP explain, provided both communal protection and opportunities for modest progress. (22) Winch argues that black Philadelphians advanced through a mixed strategy of activism and accommodation--a theory that mirrors W. E. B. Du Bois's argument that antebellum African Americans combined political agitation with the formation of community-based organizations. (23) The city's black leaders joined forces with abolitionist Quakers in 1826 to demand the return of the kidnapped children; by 1833, this association had evolved into the American Anti-Slavery Society. (24) Similarly, in 1830 the city's black secular and religious leaders inaugurated the national black convention movement, following the increased attacks on free blacks in northern cities and states. (25) As studies by V. P. Franklin, Linda M. Perkins, and Theodore Hershberg have found, black Philadelphians organized numerous self-help campaigns and institutions throughout the antebellum era. (26) Mutual benefit and benevolent societies, many of them church-based, assisted the city's constant influx of fugitives, voiced local opposition to pro-slavery legislation, and worked for the abolition of slavery itself. (27) Such activism placed antebellum black Philadelphians "at the political and cultural forefront of several national movements" to secure full citizenship rights for enslaved and free African Americans alike. (28)...

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