Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Throughout the course of American history, many events have
contributed to feelings of racism: slavery, the most obvious of these, Jim Crow
Laws, and voting rights are among a few. One thing, however, is often
overlooked. It was an event of unspeakable cruelty and racism. This event was
the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. It entailed the involvement of blacks in a
study which sought to bring an end to the disease syphilis. Upon closer
examination, it became evident that the study was actually a racist act. Had the
patients involved been treated as they were told they would be, many lives
would have been saved, and the study would have held some real merit.
To know how this experiment could have occurred in the first place, it is
necessary to look at the background and way of life of the blacks who would
participate in this experiment. The time of this experiment couldn't have been
worse for blacks. It was the 1930's, and the Great Depression was in full effect.
This hit the blacks especially hard. The men involved in the experiment were
almost all from Macon County, Alabama. Macon County's economy was based
almost solely on agriculture, most importantly, cotton. Almost all black
residents were living below the poverty line in small "dirt floor" shacks. They
could barely afford decent housing, let alone food. The blacks were so poor
because most of them were tenant farmers. That meant they worked for money
through a farm owner. They paid him off for the land they used. Because of the
financial situation, most blacks suffered malnutrition and other diet-related
health problems. Not only did this situation mean they got paid little, but they
also were easily targeted by the whites who were heading up the study. ( Jones,
61-62 )
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The medical care in the county was even worse. The county had 16
physicians practicing in the early 30's. The people who suffered the most were
the poor rural blacks, and most of the local blacks fell into this category. These
people suffered because they couldn't afford the health care that was available to
them. One black man said," The doctor charges $1.00 a mile to come out here,
and that is about 12 miles. "( Jones, 65 ) For some, this would be a small amount
to pay for proper health care, but to the poor black of the south $1.00 a mile for
twelve miles could be the equivalent of two weeks worth of work. Another man
put the idea of health-care very bluntly. He summed up the situation for poor
blacks by saying:
I ain't had a Dr. but once in my life and that was 'bout 15 years ago.
The Dr. ain't taking sticks, you know; if you go to him, you better
have money and if he comes to you, you better have it. So you see
that make a po' man do without a Dr. when he really needs him."
(Jones, 64 )
Over the course of time, whites have been fascinated by the large
differences in blacks' appearances. One study done by whites helped to expand
racist attitudes. This study was set up to study the differences in blacks and
whites. In the study, nothing went unnoticed. The study covered " hair, facial
features, posture and gait, odor, skin color, and cranium and brain size." (Jones,
17 )
The main purpose of these studies was to help justify the existing social
order, slavery, and after the abolition of slavery, blacks' second-class citizenship,
thus stressing the differences between blacks and whites. These studies helped
whites to "scientifically" keep blacks in a lower society. ( Jones, 17 )
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The precedent set by these earlier studies is what spurred the study of
syphilis on blacks. Many factors contributed to the selection of blacks from
Macon County. The three most prominent factors were: blacks in Macon
County needed health-care, most blacks were uneducated, and almost all were
poor. For these reasons, whites felt that blacks would be very willing to
participate if they were told they would be cured. Most blacks did not know
what they would be cured of, but in most cases the blacks were told they had
"bad blood." ( Jones, 71 )
When the Public Health Service (PHS) came to get blacks in 1932 for
study they first took the blacks' blood for samples and testing. The study then
singled out the blacks who carried syphilis. By doing this they could
concentrate on only the infected men. The next stage was to convince the
planters who hired blacks as tenant farmers to let them