Fund Tells Families It Was Wrong to Aid Tuskegee Study

Descendant says gesture could serve as an example for others
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 12, 2022 11:00 AM CDT
Fund Tells Families It Was Wrong to Aid Tuskegee Study
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, back, help Herman Shaw, 94, a Tuskegee syphilis study victim, during a news conference in 1997.   (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

(Newser) – For almost 40 years starting in the 1930s, as government researchers purposely let hundreds of Black men die of syphilis in Alabama so they could study the disease, a foundation in New York covered funeral expenses for the deceased. The payments were vital to survivors of the victims in a time and place ravaged by poverty and racism, the AP reports. Altruistic as they might sound, the checks—$100 at most—were no simple act of charity: They were part of an almost unimaginable scheme. To get the money, widows or other loved ones had to consent to letting doctors slice open the bodies of the dead men for autopsies that would detail the ravages of a disease the victims were told was "bad blood."

Fifty years after the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study was revealed to the public and halted, the organization that made those funeral payments, the Milbank Memorial Fund, publicly apologized Saturday to descendants of the study's victims. The move is rooted in the nation's racial reckoning after George Floyd's murder by police in 2020. "It was wrong. We are ashamed of our role. We are deeply sorry," said Christopher Koller, president of the fund. The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants' group, the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, were presented during a ceremony in Tuskegee at a gathering of children and other relatives of men who were part of the study. The money will make scholarships available to the descendants. The group also plans a memorial at Tuskegee University, which served as a conduit for the payments and was the location of a hospital where medical workers saw the men.

Koller said there's no easy way to explain how its leaders in the 1930s decided to make the payments, or to justify what happened. Generations later, because of what's called the racia "Tuskegee effect," some Black people in the US still fear government health care. Lillie Tyson Head's late father Freddie Lee Tyson was part of the study. She's now president of the Voices group. She called the apology "a wonderful gesture" even if it comes 25 years after the government apologized for the study to its final survivors, who have all since died. "It's really something that could be used as an example of how apologies can be powerful in making reparations and restorative justice be real," said Head.

(Read more apology stories.)

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