“Bad, unjust, immoral”: Tuskegee experiment haunts African American, leads to vaccine hesitancy

Jacksonville, FL. — The Tuskegee experiment happened nearly a century ago in 1932. The sting is still felt in the African American community, where vaccine hesitancy still plagues disproportionate vaccination efforts.

Reverend RB Holmes started the Statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Outreach taskforce to dispel distrust in the vaccine. He told Action News Jax’s Robert Grant the Tuskegee Experiment is a real challenge.

“It’s still fresh upon the minds of African Americans,” Rev. Holmes said. “Those are some bumps and hurdles that we understand and we’re being honest with people.”

U.S. Public Health Services conducted the study back in 1932 to look at how untreated syphilis effected black men. The study lasted for 40 years until 1972 when the work of a journalist revealed violations of civil rights ethics.

Dr. Jesse Hingson, a history professor at Jacksonville University and the chair of the division of social sciences, said the government deceived 600 black men into thinking they were getting healthcare for free.

Doctors had even withheld penicillin after they learned it could treat syphilis.

The government reached a settlement of $10 million dollars for the participants and their families after a class action lawsuit in 1973. President Bill Clinton publicly apologized in 1997 on behalf of the government. Dr. Hingson said it’s dark history still plays a role.

“The scandal touched on a lot of different issues: overlapping healthcare, racial discrimination and how different races lack access to healthcare,” he said. “It’s not only based on race, but it’s also based on class. So poorer communities are effected by access to healthcare.”

Rev. Holmes started the vaccine taskforce to overcome hesitancy. He rolled up his sleeves to get the shot and overcome the distrust.

“We just have to say to people now that the vaccines are out there have been tested and proven to be successful, [the Tuskegee Experiment] is something we’re not going to try and deny. But also we want to say it’s another day.”