The Tuskegee Experiment has done considerable damage to the Black community. In addition to the Black men who died during the study, the Tuskegee effect has left our community with a distrust of the healthcare system that was amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the damage is likely irreparable, one organization is trying to make amends. The Milbank Memorial Fund issued a public apology on June 11 to the families of the men who participated in the study.
The Milbank Memorial Fund covered funeral expenses for deceased participants of the Tuskegee Experiment, but not without a catch. Surviving family members had to consent to allowing doctors to conduct autopsies on the men in an effort to get details on the impact syphilis had on the men’s bodies, something the current Milbank Memorial Fund leadership isn’t proud of. “It was wrong. We are ashamed of our role. We are deeply sorry,” said Christopher F. Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund.
“The upshot of this was real harm,” Koller said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was one more example of ways that men in the study were deceived. And we are dealing as individuals, as a region, as a country, with the impact of that deceit.”
The Tuskegee Experiment began in 1932, as the U.S. Public Health Service launched a study of the progression of syphilis in African American men. They recruited 600 Black men in rural Alabama with the promise of free healthcare. Some of the participants went into the study believing they were being treated for “bad blood,” which was used to describe a variety of conditions including fatigue and syphilis. However, the participants weren’t getting any treatment at all.
Researchers justified their experiments on Black men, who they believed to be more prone to sexually transmitted infections. But even after penicillin was established as a cure for the disease in 1947, it was still kept from the participants, who received a placebo instead.
The study lasted almost 40 years until the AP broke the news in 1972. The participants sued and received a $9 million settlement. But by then, the damage had already been done. Nearly 130 men had died of syphilis or related complications, 40 of their wives were infected, and 19 children had inherited the disease.
Lillie Tyson Head is the president of Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a group formed in 2014 by descendants of men who were subjected to The Tuskegee Experiment. Head’s father, Freddie Lee Tyson, was part of the Tuskegee Experiment. She says she only recently became aware of Milbank’s involvement in the study, but hopes that their apology can go a long way in helping the nation heal. “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,” she said.
In addition to their apology, the Milbrook Memorial Fund will be donating an undisclosed amount to the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, which will provide scholarships to descendants of participants of The Tuskegee Experiment.