A Long Overdue Apology

Today’s post was written by Joshua Cain, Archives Technician at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

“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.”

President Bill Clinton spoke those words at a press conference on May 16, 1997. The purpose of the speech was to deliver a long overdue apology from the federal government for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

President Clinton delivered the apology to five surviving participants in the East Room of the White House. Other attendees included members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Legacy Committee, two groups that urged President Clinton to issue an apology, as well as many others from the medical and research fields. 

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment started in 1932 in Macon County, Alabama on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute. The study was conducted by the US Public Health Service and designed to record the effects of syphilis in Black men. However, the full details of the experiment were not disclosed to the 600 participants. In fact, they were not even told the official name – Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.

Of the 600 participants, 201 were in the control group and 399 had syphilis. When the study commenced there was no known cure for the disease. However, penicillin became available in 1947 as a treatment for syphilis, but this information was withheld from the participants. Many of the men died from this unethical experiment; their wives, children, and others were also infected.

total participants 1939- 611; 411 w/syphilis. 373 dead by 1968.
Table depicting number of participants in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study showing number of patients with syphilis and number of controlled non-syphlitic patients (NAID 281642)

After a news story about the experiment was published in the summer of 1972, the study was reviewed by an external group. They concluded that the practices were unethical. The experiment was eventually shut down in November of that year.

In 1973, a class-action suit was filed by attorney Fred Gray on behalf of the surviving participants and their family and friends who were also affected by the study. This resulted in a $9 million settlement for the participants. They also received free medical and burial services provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention under the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program. However, no public apology was given to the survivors at that time. It would be 24 years until the Federal government finally made an official apology.

You can watch the video below for the full press conference and apology:

Apology to Survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, May 16, 1997 (NAID 5956342)

This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) has chosen Black Health and Wellness as the theme. We hope you enjoy blogs that reveal stories of Black health and wellness from the records of the National Archives.

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