WASHINGTON (Al Jazeera) – For almost 40 years starting in the 1930s, as U.S. 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.
The payments were vital to survivors of the victims in a time and place ravaged by poverty and racism.
Altruistic as they might sound, the payments – $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 allowing doctors to 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 in 1972, the organization that made those funeral payments, the Milbank Memorial Fund, is publicly apologizing to the descendants for its role.
The apology and an accompanying monetary donation to a descendants’ group, the Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, was presented on Saturday in Tuskegee during a gathering of children and other relatives of men who were part of the study.
The current president of the fund, Christopher F Koller, said there was no easy way to explain how its leaders in the 1930s decided to make the payments, or to justify what happened.
“The upshot of this was real harm,” Koller told The Associated Press in an interview.
Generations later, some Black people in the U.S. still fear government healthcare because of what’s called the “Tuskegee effect”.
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.
The non-profit philanthropy had some $90m in assets in 2019, according to tax records, and an office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. With an early focus on child welfare and public health, today it concentrates on health policy at the state level.
Historian Susan M Reverby, who wrote a book about the Tuskegee study, researched the Milbank Fund’s participation at the fund’s request.
She said the apology could be an example for other groups with ties to systemic racism.
“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,” she said.