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For 40 years, the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted in the state of Alabama subjected African Americans to one of the most insidious acts of racism ever endured. Fifteen years ago today, the U.S. government apologized to the survivors and their families for the study, with then-President Bill Clinton vowing that history would not repeat itself.
The clinical study — ordered by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the progression of the disease syphilis in poor, rural Black men — was masked to the subjects as free health care from the government. With the Public Health Service working in tandem with the Tuskegee Institute, Black sharecroppers were left suffering with the disease, even though there was a known treatment in 1947 using penicillin.
White researcher Peter Buxtun blew the whistle on the study, after questioning the ethics of the study, prompting its end in 1972. Although a 1973 class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the victims and their families in 1974 for a $10-million settlement, Tuskegee survivors had not heard a formal word of apology from the government until former President Clinton’s impassioned remarks:
“To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
As part of the 1974 settlement, the survivors’ beneficiaries and offspring received health and medical benefits even to this day; according to a CDC timeline, 15 offspring of the study’s survivors are still receiving their benefits. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment did much to damage the already wide rift between Black and White citizens, especially during a time when racist acts had become increasingly v*****t and more frequent toward African Americans.
Healing the wounds have not come easy: Many African Americans continue to harbor a mistrust of the government and medical facilities – an understandable by-product of the mistreatment Blacks suffered over the decades. Because of the sacrifices made by the Tuskegee survivors, there are government programs in place to help prevent such acts from ever happening again.