How a history of lies paved the way to vaccine hesitancy for African Americans

Black men with syphilis were told they were being treated during 1932 study

The families of the victims in the syphilis study often caught the disease themselves but no one ever talks about the affects on the families.

ORLANDO, Fla. – As the coronavirus vaccine becomes more widely available, the numbers reveal who is actually getting the shot.

Recent data show 60% of whites have gotten the vaccine while only 6% of African Americans have rolled up their sleeves, which is a stark disparity.

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To understand why many in the African American community are skeptical and hesitant to move forward and receive the COVID-19 vaccine, you have to go back some 89 years to 1932.

The United States Public Health Service at Tuskegee conducted a study on 600 Black sharecroppers to see what would happen if syphilis went untreated.

This week on Florida’s Fourth Estate, anchors Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin invited Beverly Brooks to speak about the hesitancy of getting a COVID-19 vaccine among those in the Black community.

Brooks is very familiar with what happened in the syphilis study because of her longtime partner, Leo Ware. Both of his grandfathers were involved in the study at Tuskegee and both lost their vision.

The men are long gone now but the pain left behind from what they endured is as palpable today as it was decades ago.

Even as pain and skepticism linger, Brooks said African Americans should take the vaccine.

“I’ve taken the Pfizer shot, both of my shots,” Brooks said during the podcast.

She said things are different now.

The men in the syphilis study were told they were being treated for "bad blood." Meanwhile, they were only given a placebo while penicillin was known as an effective treatment.

“We’ve been told the correct information about the coronavirus,” Brooks said.

Although the common misconception about the study is that the men were given syphilis, Brooks said that’s not the case.

“These men were not injected with syphilis, they already had it, they just weren’t treated,” Brooks said. “They were recruited into the study by telling them they had bad blood. They didn’t tell them they had syphilis, they told them they had bad blood. And what the bad blood was, these men were fatigued, they had different things going on with them, different illnesses and so they were not told they had syphilis.”

Tuskegee was chosen as the place to conduct the study because at the time it had the highest syphilis rate in the country.

The men were promised free meals, medical treatment and even burial insurance.

But they were not told the truth about the study.

“They were told that they were being treated but they were not being treated,” Brooks said.

Instead the men were given placebos and made to believe they were getting penicillin, which was the treatment widely used to cure syphilis by 1947.

The reason treatment was withheld from these men is what makes the study so appalling.

“They wanted to watch the progression of the disease to death,” Brooks explained. “That’s what they did to these men, to see what the progression of the disease would do to their bodies.”

It is hard to believe this study went on for 40 years until it was uncovered in 1972 and made headlines. By then, only 74 of the 600 were still alive.

In 1974, a class action lawsuit awarded $10 million to the surviving participants and their family members. In 1997, former President Bill Clinton made a formal apology for the study in Tuskegee.

“To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry,” Clinton said in part.

And while all the focus has been on the men who were not treated, Brooks said there is barely a mention about the women in these men’s lives. Some studies show as many as 40 of the men’s wives were infected with the disease and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.

But Brooks said the stories of these forgotten women will soon be told as well as more research is being conducted on their journey and what they endured.

Even now, knowing what she knows, Brooks said she feels confident something like this inhumane study could not and would not happen today with the coronavirus vaccine.

“The thing about it, it’s not just the Black community that it’s being offered to. It’s being offered to everybody,” she said. “And if you watch the numbers and over 600,000 people have died and it’s not just black people who are dying.”

Brooks said she had to convince her partner to get the shot. She said given all that he had witnessed with his grandfathers, no one could blame him for being resistant.

Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.

Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Listen to the full episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate on iTunes here or on Sticher here.

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.