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Tuskegee. For most Black folks hearing the name first invokes phantom memories of deadly medical manipulation rather than the place of cultural and higher learning which the travesties occurred at. Perhaps that was a motivating factor for The Milbank Memorial Fund who publicly apologized on Saturday to descendants of the study’s victims along with making an undisclosed donation as well.
Bad blood still exists between Black Americans and medical institutions.
Starting in 1932, government medical workers in rural Alabama withheld treatment from unsuspecting Black men infected with syphilis so doctors could track the disease and dissect their bodies afterward. About 620 men were studied, and roughly 430 of them had syphilis. Reverby’s study said Milbank recorded giving a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies.
Once deceased, a foundation in New York covered their funeral expenses. The payments were vital to survivors of the victims in a time and place ravaged by southern poverty and racism.
According to NBC News, 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.”
What’s the price of a Black man life? Check the toe-tag, not one zero in sight.” J. Cole.
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, now seeks to rights its wrongs.
“It was wrong. We are ashamed of our role. We are deeply sorry,” said the president of the fund, Christopher F. Koller.
Tuskegee was a lab and Black men were the rats.
“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,” says Koller.
Per NBC News, 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.
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 and a wonderful thing” even if it comes 25 years after the U.S. 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.