Nearly 85 Years Later, Tuskegee Study’s Descendants Still Seek Justice

By Sameer Rao May 12, 2017

Next Tuesday (May 16) marks 20 years since then-president Bill Clinton made the first public apology for the U.S. government’s role in the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male," a four-decades-long project in which the Public Health Service experimented on 600 Black sharecroppers in Macon County, Alabama, withholding treatment for syphilis many didn’t even know they had. As The Associated Press (AP) reported yesterday (May 11), the unwitting participants’ living relatives still honor their deceased loved ones and seek control of the study’s legacy. 

"It was important that the people of Macon County knew what the descendants were doing, and it gave them a chance to come out and be a part not only of the healing but also remembering of the men," said Lille Tyson Head, the daughter of study participant Freddie Lee Tyson.

For the first time, she and other descendants invited AP and the public to witness the annual ceremony in which they light candles for the men. Head also leads the Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, which works in partnership with Tuskegee University’s National Center for Bioethics in Research and Healthcare (whose parent Tuskegee Institute worked with the Public Health Service) to tell the participants’ stories.

Head spoke at the gathering with attorney Fred Gray, who worked with participants to sue the federal government following AP’s 1972 report on the study four decades after its start. Though Pollard v. United States resulted in a multimillion dollar settlement in 1975, the lawsuit still persists as U.S. District Judge for the Middle Court of Alabama Myron Thompson considers Gray’s request to use unclaimed portions of the award for the Tuskegee Human & Civil Rights Multicultural Center.

Read AP’s newest report here.