BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — For almost 40 years starting in the 1930s, as government researchers 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. In a period of poverty and racism, the payments provided vital support for survivors.
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, publicly apologized Saturday to descendants of the study’s victims. The move is rooted in America’s racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020.
“It was wrong. We regret our actions. We are deeply sorry,” said the president of the fund, Christopher F. Koller.
The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants’ group, the Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, were presented during a ceremony in Tuskegee at 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. According to tax records, the nonprofit philanthropy was worth $90 million and had a Manhattan office at Madison Avenue. It was originally focused on public and child health. Today, it focuses on state health policy.
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 before the apology ceremony. “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 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. She said that the payments were discussed in books and academic studies, but not by her descendants.
“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.
Harvard University, Georgetown University and California State University have also acknowledged their connections to slavery and racism. Historian Susan M. Reverby, who wrote a book about the study, researched the Milbank Fund’s participation at the fund’s request. According to Reverby, the Milbank Fund’s apology may be an example of how other organizations can respond 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. “Confronting it is difficult, and they didn’t have to do this. I think it’s a really good example of history as restorative justice.”
In rural Alabama, doctors with government health insurance withheld medical treatment for Black patients with syphilis starting in 1932. This was done so that the disease could be tracked and their bodies dissected. A total of 620 men were examined and approximately 430 had syphilis. Reverby’s study said Milbank recorded giving a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies.
Revealed by The Associated Press in 1972, the study ended and the men sued, resulting in a $9 million settlement from which descendants are still seeking the remaining funds, described in court records as “relatively small.”
After Hugh Cumming became the U.S. surgeon-general at that time, Milbank Memorial Fund was established in 1935. Reverby discovered this money was critical in convincing families to consent to autopsies. Koller stated that the approval of the funding was made in part by white men who had close connections to federal health officials, but did not have a good understanding of Alabama and the cultural norms of Black Southerners for whom dignified funerals are very important.
“One of the lessons for us is you get bad decisions if … your perspectives are not particularly diverse and you don’t pay attention to conflicts of interest,” Koller said.
Reverby explained that burial insurance was more affordable for Black families as they were less likely to need the payments. Initially named as a defendant, Milbank was dismissed as a target of the men’s lawsuit and the organization put the episode behind it.
Years later, books including Reverby’s “Examining Tuskegee, The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy,” published in 2009, detailed the fund’s involvement. But it wasn’t until after Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police that discussions among the Milbank staff — which is now much more diverse — prompted the fund’s leaders to reexamine its role, Koller said.
“Both staff and board felt like we had to face up to this in a way that we had not before,” he said.
Koller stated that the fund not only offered a public apology to descendants but also donated an undisclosed amount of money to Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation.
Head explained that scholarships will be made available for the descendants of those who receive this money. Head said that the group plans to dedicate a Tuskegee University memorial, which was once a hub for payments. It also has a location where doctors saw the men.
While times have changed since the burial payments were first approved nearly 100 years ago, Reverby also said there’s no way to justify what happened.
“The records say very clearly, untreated syphilis,” she said. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to figure that out, and they just kept doing it year after year.”
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