Descendants of Men in U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee Honor Their Fathers and Grandfathers in Ceremony 50 Years After the Study’s Conclusion

117-year-old foundation publicly apologizes for its role in the study and launches partnership with Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation

June 11, 2022—Today, descendants of the men in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and Macon County, Alabama, will gather at Tuskegee University, a former research site for the study, with members of the board and staff of the Milbank Memorial Fund for an apology ceremony, 50 years after the study’s conclusion in 1972. The ceremony is designed to aid in transforming the legacies of the more than 623 African American men who were victims of this racist, non-therapeutic study conducted without their awareness and consent. The ceremony also marks the public inauguration of a partnership between the Milbank Memorial Fund and Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation (VFOFLF), a nonprofit organization formed by study victims’ descendants in 2014, at Tuskegee University.

“Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation is transforming the legacy of our fathers and grandfathers from one of shame and trauma to honor and triumph,” said Lillie Tyson Head, president of VFOFLF. “This event is an opportunity for reconciliation and healing as we continue our work toward building bridges of trustworthiness in order to cross from mistrust to trust in the health care system.”

“Today’s ceremony at Tuskegee University is an important step in our efforts to hold ourselves accountable,” said Christopher F. Koller, president of the Milbank Memorial Fund, an operating foundation dedicated to improving population health by connecting leaders and decision makers with reliable evidence and experience. “We are deeply sorry that the Milbank Memorial Fund played a role in the USPHS syphilis study — an enduring wound in American history. We regret our involvement in this study, and we should have openly acknowledged it sooner. The study was not aligned with our mission when our predecessors chose to be involved, and it is certainly not aligned with our mission now. While nothing can undo the past, we are committed to righting this wrong — beginning with an apology, partnership, and monetary gift to Voices for Our Fathers Legacy Foundation to assist in securing the longevity of its purpose and mission.”

From 1935 until the study’s conclusion in 1972, the Milbank Memorial Fund paid for services associated with the burials of men who died over the course of the study. This included burial stipends, which helped incentivize their families to consent to autopsies. Although the Fund’s role is publicly documented, the organization has never acknowledged it publicly.

The apology was initiated by an organizational Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion review begun in 2020 that fully examined the Fund’s history, programming, and governance practices. The review’s findings prompted the Fund to contact VFOFLF, apologize for its involvement in the study, and codify its commitments to promote and advance health equity within its mission in a Racial Equity Statement of Purpose.

The Fund and VFOFLF signed a partnership agreement in April 2022 to help both organizations advance their missions. VFOFLF — which was organized to honor the legacies of their ancestors, remember the sacrifices and suffering of the men in the study, and advocate for ethical treatment in human health care — awards annual scholarships to descendants entering the health care or related fields and plans to build a lasting Memorial and Inspirational Garden to honor the men in the study. Recently, members of VFOFLF recorded a series of public service announcements and participated in numerous media interviews encouraging people of color to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“A next step for our organizations will be helping to secure the future for Black people and other people of color, drawing on what we now know about the study,” said Mrs. Head, who is the daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson, an unwitting man in the study. “We want to honor all 623 of these beloved men like my father by bringing something good out of a study that was enormously evil.”

Along with Mrs. Head and Mr. Koller, today’s ceremony will include remarks from Dr. Rueben Warren, Professor of Bioethics, Director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University, and a founding member of the Tuskegee Legacy Committee that advocated for the federal apology delivered by President Clinton in 1997; Dr. Charlotte Morris, President of Tuskegee University; Lawrence Haygood, Jr., Mayor of Tuskegee; and Louis Maxwell, Chairman of the Macon County Commission.

A video of the Facebook livestream is now available.