Notorious Tuskegee study has lessons for COVID era, new film shows

As the U.S. continues the push to get more Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, there is a renewed effort to address vaccine hesitancy, especially among African Americans.

A new short film takes a fresh look at an ugly period in American history, and showcases why the current vaccination push is so different.

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male: That was the official title of what is now regarded as one of the most shameful episodes in American medical history.

It was a 40-year-experiment that withheld medical treatment from 600 Black men in Alabama.

One hundred of those men died.

One of the study participants was Freddie Lee Tyson, Lillie Tyson Head's father.

"We have to bring something good from something that happened that was so evil," she said.

And that's why she is now sharing her family's history in a new short film, along with six other descendants of participants in the Tuskegee study.

They are hoping to dispel some myths, and to counter the widespread distrust of the health care system shared by many Black Americans.

"There have been a lot of references to the study, as to why some people may or may not want to take the vaccine.... There's a lot of misinformation out there," she said.

The non-profit Ad Council is spearheading the project as part of its COVID-19 vaccination education initiative.

The aim is to reach those communities most impacted by the coronavirus - and those most hesitant to get the shot.

"I think for the Black community, where we know this study has undermined trust and confidence, these stories, I have to believe, will get people's attention," said the Ad Council's Lisa Sherman.

And, says the film's director, underscore the big difference between then and now.

"These men did not have the privilege or the opportunity to access what they actually needed to get better," said Deborah Riley Draper. "They didn't even have the privilege or the opportunity to decide whether they wanted to say yes or no."

"The men wanted to have the very best health care that they could get but they were denied," said Lillie Tyson. "We're in a position today where we can get that healthcare."
Copyright © 2022 WPVI-TV. All Rights Reserved.