Tuskegee victims wait for an apology It would change nothing, but might heal some hurts

April 12, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TUSKEGEE, Ala. -- Herman Shaw is awaiting an apology from his president. Ninety-four years old, he is a tall, dignified Alabamian who trusts his government still -- even though he spent 40 years at the center of one of this country's most notorious episodes, the Tuskegee Study.

Now, 65 years after public health officials began tracking syphilis in poor, black men -- never telling them they had the disease and withholding a cure when it was discovered -- President Clinton plans to say the government is sorry.

Begun in a time when syphilis was as dreaded as AIDS is today, the Tuskegee experiment stands for science gone horribly wrong.

It became "a metaphor for ill will and bad treatment," for exploiting differences in race and class, says James H. Jones, a University of Houston history professor.

For some, an official government apology is a worthless gesture.

But many -- including the survivors, the families of the dead, medical ethicists, doctors and historians -- believe contrition can help wounds heal.

"An apology is important," Jones says, "so people can begin to work through their distrust."

Bitterness lingers about Tuskegee. Shaw, who was used as a laboratory specimen without his knowledge, betrays none of it.

If the president offers an apology, Shaw says, "Personally, I would thank him very kindly for his courage."

Shaw dresses in a blue, three-piece suit with a blue striped tie for a visit to his lawyer, Fred D. Gray. Shaw drives his 1989 Buick Park Avenue to the appointment, with a nursing aide riding in the passenger seat.

All his life, he worked -- 44 years in the textile mill in Tallassee, Ala., at the same time he was raising cotton and corn for sale.

He was married for 62 years, sent two children through college and still tends to a few crops at the home he's lived in since 1922.

And for decades, with hundreds of other men like him, Shaw dutifully arrived to have his blood tested by government doctors and to take the tonics and capsules they handed him, unaware they were placebos.

The U.S. Public Health Service doctors were studying how untreated syphilis worked on the men's joints, eyes, hearts and brains. More than 600 men were recruited -- 399 with syphilis, the rest a control group that did not have the disease.

The scientists recorded autopsy results in the volumes they compiled on the suffering of the men of Tuskegee.

In return, burials were paid for. In 1958, the government offered a reward: Each participant got a certificate and $1 for each year they had spent in the program.

"Yes, $25," Shaw says.

$10 million settlement

A class-action lawsuit settled in 1974 won $10 million for the participants and their heirs. But Gray, the lawyer who filed that case, says that settlements generally include language allowing the parties to deny any responsibility.

The time is overdue, Gray says, for Washington to declare it is sorry to the eight surviving Tuskegee participants, ages 87 to 100, and to the memory of those who died.

But what is the value of an apology, mere words, after all the Tuskegee participants suffered?

"Recognition, mostly," says Shaw. He wants authorities to acknowledge what they did to him.

Even if it comes from a president who had nothing to do with the program, who wasn't even alive when it began?

"We recognize the fact," says Gray, "that an apology doesn't undo the damage that has been done."

But "when you occupy a position of responsibility -- and the president has awesome responsibility -- you assume responsibility not only for what goes on in your administration, but it's an opportunity for correcting wrongs that occurred in the past."

"I would love to see an apology," says Albert Julkes Jr., whose father died in 1995. "My only regret is that my father is not alive to see it.

"All of these men deserve some type of appreciation. They contributed, at the risk of their lives."

Important for healing

Dr. Ruth Faden, a medical ethicist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, believes an apology is "extraordinarily important."

"I wouldn't be surprised to hear someone say, 'Big deal. Words are cheap.' But for some people, there is something powerfully healing about someone acknowledging they were wrong."

Faden chaired a federal advisory committee that examined the ethics of secret Cold War-era radiation experiments. The group's findings resulted in a 1995 apology from President Clinton.

"Governments don't like to apologize," Faden says. "They go to great lengths to use other language. There are large issues of national pride and national conduct at stake when you talk about a public apology."

Official apologies are rare. "When the president says, 'We're sorry,' there can be no clearer statement that what was done to you will not be done again."

Jones, the history professor, agrees that an apology should be, "if done right, an act of contrition. It's only through contrition that we atone for our mistakes."

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