Descendants of Tuskegee Syphilis Study Survivors Say It Was Nothing Like the Covid-19 Vaccine
They want to set the record straight on their fathers’ legacies and the ahistorical information
Though two Covid-19 vaccines have been approved for distribution, it’s been a touchy subject — and a fertile ground for conspiracy theories — about whether or not the vaccine is safe for Black people. One of the parallels that Black social media users have referred to is the Syphilis Study at Tuskegee University.
From 1932 to 1972, the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) began working at Tuskegee University to study syphilis. The study, which initially involved 600 Black men (399 with the disease and 201 without), was conducted without these men’s consent or having informed them of the purpose of said study. Instead, the researchers told the men that they had “bad blood,” which was a term used to describe ailments such as anemia, fatigue, and syphilis.
When an advisory panel realized what the USPHS had done, the study was stopped. Then, in 1973, study participants and their families filed a class-action lawsuit and were awarded $10 million in an out-of-court settlement the following year.
I spoke with two descendants of one of the men who was unknowingly a part of the study in order to bridge the gap between the past and present and underscore the nuances across Black American anxieties, the legacy of experimentation on marginalized people, and the current global pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: Can you tell me how you got started with the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation and how you were able to find other descendants?
Lillie Head: In 1997, there was an apology by then-President Clinton. In that apology, accommodations were made for the building of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University. That came into fruition, and there was an opening in 1999 for the Center. As many descendants that the Center could contact, they invited them to the opening and celebration. From 1999 until 2011, we would go to the Commemoration of the Apology and participate in symposiums…