The syphilis studies at Tuskegee that started in 1932 had a devastating impact on the Black community, and that has lasted to today, as a portion of Black Americans are still wary of vaccinations backed by the federal government.
As part of an ongoing Covid-19 vaccine education initiative, the Ad Council and Covid Collaborative have launched a short-form documentary as part of the “It’s Up To You” campaign, in partnership with descendants of the men involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, that uncovers the stories of the men behind the study in order to clarify any misconceptions about the current Covid-19 vaccinations.
The film, “Tuskegee Legacy Stories,” was created by director Deborah Riley Draper, production company Coffee Bluff Pictures and creative agency Joy Collective in conjunction with Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation and Black Coalition Against Covid-19. It uncovers personal and mostly unheard perspectives on the legacy of the study, told directly by the families involved in and impacted by the study. It sets the record straight on what happened, what has changed and what current generations can learn from the experience to build confidence in public health within Black communities, especially as it relates to the Covid-19 vaccines. The film includes seven stories of fathers, grandfathers, uncles and pillars of the community, aimed to shed light on how the descendants have worked to reconcile the shame and tragedy of the study.
“The loving human beings involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee were our fathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins. Unfortunately, until recent years, references to their humanity were not detailed in medical research or academic writings, and some information and beliefs about the study continue to be unknown, ill-perceived and misleading,” said Lillie Tyson Head, president of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation, in a statement. “We should not allow anyone who needs and wants a Covid-19 vaccine to not have their questions answered, or be denied the opportunity to get it, like the men in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. We must protect ourselves and each other.”
The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was conducted from 1932 through 1972, and it affected more than 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who were made to believe that they were receiving free medical care for the disease, when they, in fact, were not receiving treatment. More than a hundred men died from syphilis or its complications by the end of the study. Over the years, there have been widespread misunderstandings of the study, including people thinking the men were infected by the government, and many family members of the men involved felt their narratives were unfairly portrayed. Today, descendants of these men are working to reframe the narrative and build trust through public service and public health, with this campaign serving as one example.
With Covid-19 vaccination rates still under 50%, according to the CDC, and with 22% of Black Americans taking a wait and see approach getting vaccinated, according to recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, getting the facts straight is imperative. The film’s goal is to let history inspire and empower people to make the best decisions about their health, according to the Ad Council.
The film and other content can be found at a dedicated website and will also be seen on social and media channels across the country.