Some squinted their eyes shut. Many held their breath. And others, well, the nervous ones, needed coaxing from family members to roll up their sleeves and receive the COVID-19 vaccine at pop-up clinics inside the Urban League of Greater Madison on the city’s South Side.

All expressed relief after receiving the life-saving dose.

Not satisfied with current COVID-19 vaccination rates in communities of color, the Urban League joined forces with SSM Health and the Sable Flames, a nonprofit Black firefighters’ group in Dane County, to help achieve racial equity and serve as a trusted resource for disseminating educational vaccine materials.

“It’s really great to be able to really interact with people and see the turnout of people who want to protect themselves,” said Brandon Jones, chair of the Sable Flames. “Now that the CDC has lifted some of its COVID restriction guidelines, I think it’s imperative more than ever to go ahead and protect yourself.  By getting the vaccine, we can prevent another surge and another possible lockdown. Let’s just do our part.”

The coronavirus pandemic has ruthlessly taken the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. The COVID-19 death rate among Black Americans is three times higher than among white Americans, and health officials believe the vaccine would narrow that gap.

Nationally, nearly two-thirds of all U.S. residents 12 years and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; 55% were fully vaccinated at the start of July. About 50% of Wisconsin residents are fully vaccinated, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The percentage of Black Wisconsinites who are fully vaccinated lag other racial groups. Only 27% of African Americans are fully vaccinated, compared with 32% of Hispanics, 51% of Asians, 43% of American Indians and 46% of whites.

“We know that we have to get the numbers up,” said Urban League CEO Dr. Ruben L.  Anthony Jr., who has lost family and friends to the coronavirus.  “We want to encourage African Americans and the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community that this shot is safe.” 

Vaccine hesitancy is prevalent in Black and Brown communities. The unwillingness to receive the shot stems from this country’s history with medical research, coupled with the belief that government institutions don’t have their best intentions at heart.

In addition to the mistrust, Black communities are disproportionately affected by barriers to vaccination, such as limited online access and a lack of transportation.

That’s where the Urban League stepped in. On four separate occasions, the organization turned its lobby and community conference room into a well-run vaccination clinic, reaching roughly 300 residents. The effort caught the attention of Gov. Tony Evers.

Community groups and churches, including Mount Zion Baptist Church, Fountain of Life Covenant Church, African American Health Network of Dane County, Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, YWCA Madison, the NAACP of Dane County, Worker Justice Wisconsin, aided in bringing the vaccine directly into the community.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the vaccines are safe to take and effective at preventing COVID-19. For more from the CDC on the vaccines, visit