Foundation apologizes for its role in a study that allowed African-Americans to die of syphilis

For nearly 40 years, beginning in the 1930s, as government researchers left hundreds of black men in Alabama to die of syphilis so they could study the disease, a New York foundation covered the funeral costs of those who died. The payments were vital to the survivors of the victims in a time and place ravaged by poverty and racism.

Altruistic as they may seem, the checks ($100 maximum) weren’t just an act of charity: they were part of an almost unimaginable plan. To get the money, widows or other loved ones had to consent to doctors cutting open the bodies of the dead for autopsies that would detail the ravages of a disease victims were told was “bad blood.” .

Fifty years after the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study was revealed to the public and stopped, the organization that made those funeral payments, the Milbank Memorial Fund, publicly apologized Saturday to descendants of the study’s victims. The move has its roots in America’s racial reckoning after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd.

"It was wrong. We are ashamed of our role. We are deeply sorry,” said fund president Christopher F. Koller.

The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants group, Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, were presented during a ceremony in Tuskegee at a gathering of boys and other family members of men who were part of the study.

Endowed in 1905 by Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, part of a wealthy and well-connected New York family, the fund was one of the first private foundations in the nation. The nonprofit philanthropy had about $90 million in assets in 2019, according to tax records, and an office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. With an initial focus on child welfare and public health, today he concentrates on health policy at the state level.

Koller said there is no easy way to explain how their 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 is called the"tuskegee effect".

“The result of this was real damage,” Koller told The Associated Press in an interview before the apology ceremony. “It was yet another example of the ways the men in the study were misled. And we are dealing as individuals, as a region, 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 the president of the group Voices. She called the apology "a wonderful gesture and a wonderful thing", even if it comes 25 years after the US government . USA isapologizedfor the study to its last survivors, who have already died.

“It really is 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 about Milbank’s role in the study until Koller called her one day last fall. The payments have been discussed in academic studies and in a couple of books, but descendants weren’t aware of it, she said.

“It really was something that took me by surprise,” he said. Head’s father left the studio after becoming suspicious of the investigation, years before it ended, and received none of the Milbank money, he said, but hundreds of others did.

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Other prominent organizations, universities like Harvard andgeorgetownand the state of California have acknowledged its links to racism and slavery. Historian Susan M. Reverby, who wrote a book about the study, investigated the Milbank Fund’s involvement at the fund’s request. She said her apology could set 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 very complicated,” he said. “Facing it is difficult, and they didn’t have to do this. I think it’s a very good example of history as restorative justice.”

Beginning in 1932, government medical workers in rural Alabama denied treatment to unsuspecting black men infected with syphilis so that doctors could track down the disease and dissect their bodies afterward. About 620 men were studied and about 430 of them had syphilis. The Reverby study said Milbank recorded a total donation of $20,150 for some 234 autopsies.

Revealed by The Associated Press in1972the study ended and the men filed a lawsuit, resulting in a$9 million settlementof which descendants are still seeking the remaining funds, described in court records as "relatively small".

The Milbank Memorial Fund became involved in 1935 after the US Surgeon General at the time, Hugh Cumming, sought out 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 less important when the Depression ended and more Black families were able to afford burial insurance, Reverby said. Initially named as a defendant, Milbank was ruled out as a target of the men’s lawsuit and the organization put the episode behind them.

Years later, books like "Examining Tuskegee, The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy" Reverby, published in 2009, detailed the fund’s participation. But it wasn’t until after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police that discussions among Milbank’s now much more diverse staff led fund leaders to reexamine his role, Koller said.

“Both the staff and the board felt we had to deal with this in a way that we hadn’t done before,” he said.

In addition to delivering 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 to descendants, Head said. The group also plans a memorial at Tuskegee University, which served as a conduit for payments and was the location of a hospital where men were seen by medical workers.

While times have changed since burial payments were first approved nearly 100 years ago, Reverby also said there is no way to justify what happened.

“The records say very clearly, untreated syphilis,” he said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to find out, and they kept doing it year after year.”

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