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Tragedy to Triumph

Tuskegee study descendants tackle distrust of medicine and overcoming COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

Descendants of the Tuskegee study discuss overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Descendants of the men involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study shared their stories during a major public awareness event at Howard University. The July event came amid the national effort to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and the need to confront the sources of lingering distrust of medicine by Black Americans.

The Tuskegee study, whose original title was “The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” continues to have an important impact on perceptions and trust in medicine to this day, but many people do not know the full story. To shed light on the study, the event showcased “Legacy,” a new short-form documentary that not only tells the story of the study but also includes messages from descended families that encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly a quarter (22 percent) of Black Americans are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the COVID-19 vaccines. The event at Howard University featured panel discussions that included former mayor of Tuskegee, Alabama, Omar Neal, and Leo Ware – both of their grandfathers were subjects in the study. It also featured Lillie Tyson Head and Howard alumna Carmen Head Thornton (B.S. ’96), who spoke about family member Freddie Lee Tyson who was in the study. All of their voices were also heard in the short film.

The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was conducted from 1932-1972 by the United States government. During the study, more than 600 Black men in Tuskegee were made to believe that they were receiving free medical care – when they, in fact, were not receiving treatment. More than 100 men died from syphilis or its complications by the end of the study.

The Howard event was organized as part of the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative and the “It’s Up to You” campaign from the Ad Council COVID Collaborative and the Joy Collective.

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This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue.

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