NARRATION: Black Americans are dying from Covid at twice the rate of whites, as long-standing racial disparities in health are made more apparent by the pandemic disparities with deep roots in the nations past.
STACEY D. STEWART: If youve been generationally denied access to going to hospital through segregated facilities, denied being able to access the highest quality care, how in the world can you say that you dont understand why there are health disparities today?
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES, 1958):ANNOUNCER: In post-war America, the wail of ambulance sirens, the sight of feverish little faces and bodies immobilized by pain and paralysis becomes an all too familiar picture.
NARRATION: The polio virus hit the U.S. in waves from the 1900s to the 1960s
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES, 1953):ANNOUNCER: Wildly, violently, polio hit even at babies.
NARRATION: crippling tens of thousands, mainly children. In 1938, the nations most famous polio victim President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped launch the March of Dimes to raise funds to care for victims and find a cure.
STACEY D. STEWART (PRESIDENT AND C.E.O., MARCH OF DIMES): What President Roosevelt did was really galvanize the whole country. He figured that for something as important as solving the polio crisis, every single American could afford to send a dime into the White House to help advance scientific research. And thats what people did.
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES, 1953):ANNOUNCER: The care is for everyone who needs it. Send your dimes and dollars to your local March of Dimes headquarters.
STACEY D. STEWART: So everybody felt like they were in the fight.
NARRATION: But not everybody was featured in that fight. The fundraising campaign, which promised care irrespective of race, kicked off showing children who had polio all of them white.
NAOMI ROGERS (HISTORIAN OF MEDICINE, YALE UNIVERSITY): Black families had long been urged to give dimes just like white families, even though they were clearly not represented in March of Dimes propaganda.
NARRATION: White scientists had pushed the theory that Blacks were less susceptible to polio. But in fact, many Black polio victims went undiagnosed and a segregated medical system denied them access to adequate care.
NAOMI ROGERS: If you were a Black family facing a paralyzed child maybe you, you managed to find a Black doctor who examined the child and said, yes, that that child has polio. What your child did not have access to was any kind of treatment.
NARRATION: The nations top polio treatment center received funds from the March of Dimes and was located on property purchased by FDR himself.
ARCHIVAL (MARCH OF DIMES, 1958):ANNOUNCER: He is drawn to a broken-down resort at Warm Springs, Georgia after hearing that its buoyant warm waters helped a polio victim walk again.
NARRATION: But its mineral pools and formal dining rooms were for whites only. On movie nights, white patients were separated from the Black custodial staff by a white picket fence.
STACEY D. STEWART: It was a whites-only facility. And that was very much in line with the kind of segregated facilities that occurred all across the country. This is in the South, this is in the 1940s. There are lynchings going on of Black people. So context is really important.
NAOMI ROGERS: Increasingly there were a number of civil rights activists during the 1930s who began to protest that they were part of the March of Dimes. They were raising money, and they deserve to be able to have some of their children admitted to the top rehab center, especially as its patron was the president of the United States.
NARRATION: For FDR, the controversy hurt his attempts to appeal for the Black vote. Even so, the Warm Springs trustees decided to maintain the segregated status quo opening a small separate facility for Black patients in 1941 at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
NAOMI ROGERS: The general consensus among these trustees was that this was a serious political problem, but that there was no way that they were going to desegregate Warm Springs. Nobody wanted a situation where white children would have to swim in the same pools as Black children.
NARRATION: Under pressure from Black donors, the March of Dimes eventually began using some of the millions it had raised to build treatment centers open to all races, and train Black nurses and doctors. Posters featuring Black children as polio victims finally appeared in 1947.
NAOMI ROGERS: One of the things that the history of polio tells us is that racial disparities, health disparities were not invented in the past ten years and that, very often, they have been deliberately ignored.
STACEY D. STEWART: People look at the health disparities and say, well, why, why do Black people have so many problems. Why do, why is there so much obesity? Why is there so much hypertension, you know. And so it is extremely important that we understand where we have been because it explains to the T. why we are in the situation were in today.
NARRATION: By 1955, vaccines began to bring an end to polio, but Black communities were slower to receive them and their vaccination rates lagged behind whites. Today, with the Covid vaccine, Black and Hispanic Americans are lagging far behind whites raising questions about whether lingering inequalities in healthcare are to blame.