New York fund apologizes for role in Tuskegee syphilis study

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For almost 40 years starting in the 1930s, as government researchers has purposely let hundreds of Black men die of syphilis in Alabama so they could study the disease, a foundation in New York covered funeral expenses for the deceased.

The payments were vital to survivors of the victims in a time and place ravaged by poverty and racism.

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.”

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, is publicly apologizing to the descendants for its role. The move is rooted in America’s racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020.

The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants’ group, the Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, will be presented Saturday in Tuskegee during a gathering of children and other relatives 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 nation’s first private foundations. The nonprofit philanthropy had some $90 million in assets in 2019, according to tax records, and an office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. With an early focus on child welfare and public health, today it concentrates on health policy at the state level.

The current president of the fund, Christopher F. Koller, said there’s 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 called the “Tuskegee effect.”

“The upshot of this was real harm,” Koller told The Associated Press in an interview. “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.”

Lillie Tyson Head’s late father Freddie Lee Tyson was part of the study. She’s now president of the Voices of our Fathers 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.

Despite her leadership of the descendants 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 a couple books, but the descendants were unaware, she said.

“It really was something that caught me off guard,” she said. Head’s father left the study after becoming suspicious of the research, years before it ended, and didn’t receive any of the Milbank money, she said, but hundreds of others did.

Other prominent organizations, universities including Harvard and Georgetown and the state of California have acknowledged their ties to racism and slavery. Historian Susan M. Reverby, who wrote a book about the study, researched the Milbank Fund’s participation at the fund’s request. She said its apology could be an example for other groups with ties to systemic racism.

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