Nearly a century after the launch of the Tuskegee Experiment, in which 623 Black men in Alabama were infected with syphilis and withheld treatment by federal officials — the United States government is taking steps toward repair by investing in the education of descendants of the study’s victims.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation announced a scholarship program for descendants on Feb. 7. The foundation, a non-profit authorized by Congress, is raising $5 million to support the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation scholarships, an initiative by and for relatives of those who were violated in the experiment.
“This scholarship is a step toward correcting an inexcusable violation of medical ethics,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen said in a statement. “It seeks to uplift the descendants of the Untreated Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and takes steps toward rectifying a difficult part of our public health history.”
In 2023, Voices For Our Fathers awarded four scholarships to graduating high school seniors, totaling $11,000. The CDC Foundation aims to increase the awards to $100,000 annually. As a head start, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation contributed $1 million toward their $5 million goal.
The CDC Foundation’s contribution comes after a commitment by Milbank Memorial Fund in 2022. The board’s investment acknowledges its role in creating generational trauma for the men and their loved ones.
“Our partnership with Voices For Our Father Legacy Foundation following our apology for the Milbank Memorial Fund’s role in the study has underscored the importance of publicly recognizing past harms and working toward healing—and ultimately building trust in our health system and improving health outcomes for everyone,” Christopher F. Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund, said in a statement.
The Tuskegee Experiment, formally known as the United States Public Health Service Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, lasted four decades. From 1932 to 1972, the men were subjects of experimentation, lured into participating with promises of hot meals, free medical exams, and burial insurance.
They were told they were being treated for “bad blood” by researchers. Even after penicillin became the treatment of choice in the mid-1940s, the experiment continued, and they were barred from accessing it.
In the end, 128 of the men died of syphilis or related complications, 40 wives were infected, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
In 1974, men who were part of the study won a $10 million out-of-court settlement. Today, their families are focused on reclaiming the narrative of those connected to the experiment.
Lillie Head, president of Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, said the purpose of the descendant-led non-profit organization is to “transform the legacy of the longest-lasting, non-therapeutic study in U.S. medical history from shame and trauma to honor and triumph.”
She expressed “enormous gratitude for the support for the annual scholarships for future generations of descendants” in a statement.
“We believe this scholarship endowment fund and partnership demonstrate a new and lasting commitment to improving a health care system that provides everyone fair and equal medical care regardless of their racial and social status.”