Even in the prisons
Elsewhere in the USA in the 1950s, African-Americans were being experimented on in prisons. Inmates at a prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were used as guinea pigs to test toothpaste, skin cream, hair dye, and soap for several pharmaceutical companies. They were also used to test radioactive, toxic, and mind-altering drugs for the US military.
The head of the study, Dr Albert Kligman, told a newspaper in the 1960s how thrilled he was to have such a large, and captive group, to experiment on. “All I saw before me were acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time.”
There have been hundreds of horrific experiments conducted on African-Americans without their knowledge or consent. But what happened to 600 African-American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, in the American South, between 1932 and 1972 has been described as “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in US history”.
What happened at Tuskegee was a secret US government study of the effects of syphilis on the human body. It made President Bill Clinton so angry and ashamed that, in 1997, he felt compelled to issue an official apology on behalf of the US government.
“What was done cannot be undone,” Clinton said in a speech in front of the handful of African-American survivors of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. “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 US government did was shameful, and I am sorry … To our African-American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist.”
There have been songs about what happened at Tuskegee – Tuskegee 626 by Gil Scott-Heron. There have been plays about what happened at Tuskegee – the award- winning Broadway play, Mrs Evers’ Boys.