At 95, Tuskegee study participant Herman Shaw prefers reconciliation to recrimination, forgiveness to bitterness.

A SURVIVOR'S GRACE

August 24, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

By the time the old man was finished talking at the White House that day -- about the government's notorious Tuskegee ** syphilis study, about the poor black farmers who suffered because doctors betrayed them, about love and forgiveness -- a roomful of dignitaries was standing, applauding, and the president of the United States was wiping his eyes.

And Herman Shaw, an Alabama farmer who believed in his government when he enrolled in the Tuskegee study in 1932 and who believes in his government still, was on his feet, his arms spread wide, as if to enfold the room.

On that day last May, the president had said he was sorry. Shaw gave thanks.

"In my opinion," he said, his voice low and even, "it is never too late to work to restore faith and trust."

Today the Tuskegee study stands for the arrogance of science, for the inhumanity that can overtake research, for the pain that results when medicine tosses aside ethics. Its legacy is bitterness and suspicion.

"To this day," Vice President Gore said at the White House, "the Tuskegee study makes some Americans think twice about donating blood, or taking their children for vaccinations, or signing an organ donor card."

But Herman Shaw, 95, and the seven other survivors of the Tuskegee study are not bitter. Where they could have turned their backs, they opened their arms. Where they might have preached anger, they taught reconciliation. When the government offered an apology, 65 years late, they stood with grace and accepted.

"Herman Shaw is a window into some of the best things in our country," says Dr. Stephen Thomas, director of the Institute for Minority Health Research at Emory University, "even though he emerges from one of the worst things we've ever done.

"His is a story of redemption. It's a story of hope. It's a story of

forgiveness."

"I am an American," Shaw says, "true-born, red-blooded American. And I live in America, and I want to live in peace and harmony. How can we love the Lord, whom we've never seen, and hate our fellow men, whom we see every day? I want to get along."

It has been 25 years since news accounts of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male horrified Americans: Government doctors spent 40 years watching the disease progress in nearly 400 poor black men -- never telling them they had the disease and withholding a cure when it was discovered in the mid-1940s.

Amid the outcry in 1972, the study was halted. The next year, Congress convened hearings. Shaw took his first trip to Washington to testify before Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's

committee.

"He said, 'You were a guinea pig,' " Shaw recalls. "I said, 'No, Senator, we were all grown men. I think they used us for guinea hogs.' "

That was in 1973, at the end of the story.

The story begins in Shaw's rural Alabama at the start of the century.

There, sharecroppers -- among them former slaves -- scratched out a subsistence on little patches of land. Poor black farmers were as likely to find themselves at the White House as in a spaceship to the moon.

Illiteracy rates were high. Incomes were pitiful. Malnutrition was common. Just down the highway was the proud Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington to educate black students. But the rural counties were heartbreakingly poor, and sending children to college was beyond most families' dreams. Sons and daughters were expected to stay on the farm.

Yet there were solid, Bible-reading families and people who took pride in working hard and caring for their own. So it was with Shaw, who wanted to go to college but who stayed on the farm because his father asked him to.

He was born in Tallapoosa County, Ala., near the town of Tallassee, in 1902. His father, Frank -- "a church-going man; apparently some of that rubbed off on me" -- was a farmer with a third-grade education. Shaw has no memory of his mother, Eliza Bickerstaff Shaw, who died when he was 3.

The family crops included cotton, and Shaw remembers the year his father ginned 31 bales. They brought about $20 each.

There was no money for extras, but the family always had enough to eat, Shaw says, which set them a bit above some of their neighbors. "I never went hungry, not until the Hoover administration," when the Depression seized the country.

He was the valedictorian of his 1922 high school class. Seventy-five years later, he crisply lists the subjects he took in his last year of formal schooling: "Latin, algebra, early European history and physical geography."

He wanted to go to college to study engineering and become, he explains in his precise vocabulary, "an automobile master mechanic." His father didn't see the need. "My daddy had the money and wouldn't send me. I had my books. But he said it wouldn't be nothing but being a tire-changer and a grease monkey."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.