BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – For nearly 40 years from the 1930s, when government researchers deliberately let hundreds of black men die of syphilis in Alabama so they could study the disease, a foundation in New York covered the funeral expenses of the deceased. The payments were vital for survivors of victims at a time and place wracked by poverty and racism.
As altruistic as they may seem, the checks — up to $100 — weren’t just an act of charity: they were part of an almost unimaginable scheme. To get the money, widows or other loved ones had to agree to let doctors open the bodies of the dead for autopsies that would detail the ravages of a disease whose victims were accused of having “bad blood”.
Fifty years after the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study was exposed to the public and shut down, the organization that made those funeral payments, the Milbank Memorial Fund, publicly apologized to the descendants of the study’s victims on Saturday. . The move is rooted in American racial reckoning after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd.
“It was wrong. We are ashamed of our role. We are deeply sorry,” fund chairman Christopher F. Koller said.
The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants group, the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, were presented in a ceremony in Tuskegee at a gathering of children and other parents of men who were part of the study.
Founded in 1905 by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, a member of a wealthy and well-connected New York family, the fund was one of the first private foundations in the country. The nonprofit philanthropy had about $90 million in assets in 2019, according to tax records, and an office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Initially focusing on child welfare and public health, it now focuses on state-level health policy.
Koller said there was no easy way to explain how its leaders in the 1930s decided to make the payments, or to justify what happened. Generations later, some black people in the United States still fear government health care because of what’s known as the “Tuskegee Effect.”
“The result of this has been real harm,” Koller told The Associated Press in an interview before the apology ceremony. “It was just one more example of how the men in the study were deceived as a country, with the impact of that deception.
Lillie Tyson Head’s late father, Freddie Lee Tyson, was part of the study. She is now president of the group Voices. She called the apology a “wonderful gesture and a wonderful thing”, even though it comes 25 years after the US government issued an apology for the study to its last survivors, all of whom have since died.
“It’s really something that could be used as an example of how powerful apologies can be in making reparations and restorative justice real,” Head said.
Despite her leadership of the descendant group, Head said she didn’t even know of Milbank’s role in the study until Koller called her one day last fall. The payments were discussed in academic studies and a few books, but descendants were unaware, she said.
“It’s really something that caught me off guard,” she said. Head’s father left the study after becoming suspicious of the research, years before it was completed, and received none of the Milbank money, she said, but hundreds of others have done it.
Other major organizations, universities such as Harvard and Georgetown and the State of California have acknowledged their links to racism and slavery. Historian Susan M. Reverby, who wrote a book about the study, researched the Milbank Fund’s involvement at the request of the fund. She said her apology could be an example for other groups linked to systemic racism.
“It’s really important because at a time when the nation is so divided, how we come to terms with our racism is so complicated,” she said. “Facing him is tough, and they didn’t have to. I think that’s a very good example of history as restorative justice.
Beginning in 1932, government medical workers in rural Alabama withheld treatment from black men infected with syphilis so that doctors could track the disease and dissect their bodies afterwards. About 620 men were studied, and about 430 of them had syphilis. The Reverby study indicates that Milbank recorded a total of $20,150 for approximately 234 autopsies.
Revealed by the Associated Press in 1972, the study ended and the men filed a lawsuit, resulting in a $9 million settlement whose descendants are still seeking the remaining funds, described in the court records as “relatively weak”.
The Milbank Memorial Fund became involved in 1935 after then-US Surgeon General Hugh Cumming asked for the money, which was crucial in persuading families to agree to autopsies, Reverby found. The decision to approve the funding was made by a group of white men with close ties to federal health officials but little understanding of conditions in Alabama or the cultural norms of black Southerners, for whom dignified burials were very important, Koller said.
“One of the lessons for us is that you make bad decisions if … your perspectives aren’t particularly diverse and you don’t pay attention to conflicts of interest,” Koller said.
Payments became smaller as the Depression ended, and more black families could afford funeral insurance, Reverby said. Originally named as a defendant, Milbank was dismissed as a target for the men’s trial and the organization put the episode behind her.
Years later, books such as Reverby’s “Examining Tuskegee, The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy”, published in 2009, detail the fund’s involvement. But it wasn’t until after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police that discussions among Milbank’s staff — which is now much more diverse — prompted the fund’s executives to reconsider its role, Koller said. .
“Staff and the board felt like we had to deal with this in a way that we didn’t before,” he said.
In addition to issuing a public apology to a gathering of descendants, the fund decided to donate an undisclosed amount to the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, Koller said.
The money will make scholarships available for descendants, Head said. The group is also planning a memorial at Tuskegee University, which served as a conduit for payments and was the location of a hospital where medical workers saw the men.
Although times have changed since funeral payments were first approved nearly 100 years ago, Reverby also said there was no way to justify what happened.
“The records say very clearly, untreated syphilis,” she said. “You don’t need a doctorate. to understand this, and they have continued to do so year after year.
Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.