Tuskegee study descendants encourage COVID-19 vaccination

The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s documentary promotes confidence in public health within Black communities.

Black Americans’ mistrust in public healthcare skyrocketed after the notorious Tuskegee study was given front-page coverage in The New York Times in 1972. The experiment left Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, intentionally untreated for Syphilis for more than 40 years so medical experts could study the long-term effects of the disease. 

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the U.S., Tuskegee's impact has continued to instill fear and hesitation within the Black community. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22% of Black Americans have opted for a “wait and see” approach to the vaccine.

To encourage vaccination, the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s “It’s Up To You” campaign created a short documentary featuring descendants of the Tuskegee study speaking about their relatives’ experiences and how it differs from the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The film, directed by Deborah Riley Draper, was made with creative agency JOY Collective, production company Coffee Bluff Pictures in conjunction with Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation and the Black Coalition Against COVID-19.

Family members featured in the film include Amy Pack, great niece of Seth Barrow; Dr. Kimberly Carr, great great granddaughter of John Goode; Lillie Tyson Head, daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson and president of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation; and Omar Neal, nephew of Freddie Lee Tyson and former mayor of Tuskegee, among others.

The short film shares the history of the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, which was conducted from 1932 through 1972. More than 600 Black men with syphilis believed they were receiving free medical care but were left untreated for researchers to study the natural progression of the disease.The family members share heartfelt memories and photos of their relatives, humanizing the event.

“What we all see in the media [about Tuskegee] is people describe these men as poor sharecroppers,” Kelli Richard Lawson, CEO of the JOY Collective, told Campaign US. ”But you never see the human side of them as fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, humans, raising their families like every family in this country.”

Featuring family members of these men in the documentary was an impactful approach to the topic, according to Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer of the Ad Council.

“They are so perfect to be the storytellers because if they can move past it and see the lessons and drive towards getting people vaccinated, it feels like everyone should be able to do the same,” Hillman said.

The film also clarifies misinformation about the study, including that the men were infected with syphilis by the government. It also shows the contrast of the men not receiving care compared to the free COVID-19 vaccines being offered in the U.S. The family members reveal that they have received the vaccine themselves.

“Their trauma does not have to be our story,” Lawson said. “We have the power to change that. Don't let the pain and the trauma that those families experienced be repeated. Let us take the opportunity to turn trauma to triumph.”

Draper, who also directed The Legacy of Black Wall Street, hopes the film will be a “path to the vaccine” for those still hesitant to receive their shots. 

“If people investigate for themselves and read the primary research from these descendants who will tell you very clearly, because they've done the research, they've done the homework, they have the facts,” Draper said.

The campaign, part of Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s ongoing vaccine education initiative, includes the mini documentary and 60-second versions that will air on TV and across digital platforms. 

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