Oral History Project Depicts Houston's Uneven Response to AIDS Epidemic

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When Sarah Canby Jackson set out to research Houston's response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, she was soon shocked — there was virtually no scholarship on how the fourth-largest city in the United States responded to one of the most significant public health crises of the 20th century.

"I found nothing," Jackson said. "I expected to find master's theses at Rice and the University of Houston. I expected an oral history project, but I found none of that."

So Jackson, who is also an archivist for Harris County, decided to do the research herself. She, along with co-founder Tori Williams, created the oH Project, an oral history of HIV/AIDS in Houston, Harris County and Southeast Texas.

Over the next three years, the pair and oH project researchers plan to interview more than 100 HIV/AIDS survivors, doctors, activists, politicians and religious leaders about Houston's response to the epidemic — and in the process create the most comprehensive report on the subject to date. The oH project will then be housed at Rice University's Woodson Research Center for the public to explore.

oH Project board member Andrew Edmonson called the city's efforts to combat AIDS "halting, sometimes blundering [and] sometimes heroic." Jackson said the initial response by local government to AIDS, when it arrived in Houston in 1981, was "almost criminal." Because AIDS disproportionately affected gay men, Jackson said many in the community felt that the gay community had brought the disease on itself.

"The government was very slow to deal with it," Jackson said. "And people in the community were very frustrated. They were the ones out there providing services."

While some doctors refused to treat AIDS patients, and just one Houston funeral home in 1982 agreed to embalm people who died of the disease, Jackson said other hospitals and clinics accepted AIDS patients even when little was known about how the disease was transmitted or should be treated.

"They did marvelous work, but they were a minority," Jackson said.

More than 22,000 Houston-area residents have died of HIV/AIDS, while another 26,000 are currently living with the disease.

Amber David, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1996, said he was eager to participate in the oH project. He said he feels obligated to participate because he is still alive to share his story, unlike many of his friends and colleagues who succumbed to AIDS.

David is the director of the AIDS ministry at St. John's United Methodist Church in downtown Houston, where he offers weekly HIV testing to parishioners and the homeless who use the church's social services.

He said health providers in Houston and across the United States have made massive leaps in treating HIV/AIDS, noting that his initial treatment regiment of a cocktail of pills daily has been whittled down to a single pill.

With a persistent focus on HIV/AIDS prevention, David said he believes Houston can rid itself completely of the devastating virus.

"We are at a place where we can get to zero," David said.

December 1 is World AIDS Day.  Readers can donate to the nonprofit AIDS Foundation Houston here..

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