By Vicki C. Phillips

(Long Beach, CA) – – “How fortunate and blessed we are to know about the types of COVID vaccines that are available today.  Why then should we deny ourselves getting vaccinated? We all have the opportunity to be informed, receive advice from professionals we trust and understand how we can protect ourselves by getting vaccinated.”

Those were the words of  Lillie Tyson Head, daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson, a United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study Victim at Tuskegee and Macon County, Alabama and President, of the Virginia-based, Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation https://www.voicesforfathers.org/, speaking  on a panel entitled “Vaccine Hesitancy: Understanding the Science and Getting people to Trust It.” The panel was part of the Annual Round-Up of Education Leaders, co-hosted by the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators, https://www.caaasa.org/the Los Angeles County Alliance of Black School Educators and the National Coalition on Education Equity under the theme “Addressing Equity for African American and Other Students of Color.”

The organizations, including educators from throughout California, met recently at the Reef Restaurant in Long Beach, to discuss a number of issues related to education equity.  The Annual Round-Up of Education Leaders was co-hosted by the California Association of African American Superintendents and Administrators, the Los Angeles County Alliance of Black School Educators and the National Coalition on Education Equity under the theme “Addressing Equity for African American and Other Students of Color.”

The presentation on vaccine hesitancy, also featured Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director, LA County Department of Public Health and Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, Chief Medical Officer, Watts HealthCare Corporation and Past President, National Medical Association and was one of four highlighted throughout the day.

During her speech, Tyson Head shared information about the history of Public Health Service’s Study and corrected some of the misinformation that has been widely circulated for decades. For one, she requested that the monikers, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” and “Tuskegee Experiment,” cease from being used.  Tuskegee Institute (now University) was not the owner of the study, nor were they responsible for it, she said 

“The study began in 1932 and was initially funded by the Rosenwald Foundation for six months and then, for the next 39 years and 6 months, it was approved and funded by the US government,” she said.  “This study is the longest lasting, non-therapeutic, biomedical study in US history.” The participants were African American men; struggling farmers or poor sharecroppers with little formal education.  They were NOT injected with syphilis, as the myth has been circulated.  The “recruits” included men with congenital syphilis, latent syphilis or no syphilis. 

“The men were told that they had ‘bad blood’ and that they would receive treatment.  They were never told they were in a study and the intent of the study.”  To make matters worse, those with syphilis were denied Penicillin, when it became available in 1945, despite the drug’s proven results in treating the disease.  

“The ramifications of this study are still haunting and fosters mistrust” she said.  “Forty nine years after the study was exposed and 89 years after the study began, people, particularly in the African American communities, distrust certain medical treatment and medical research.  And they are using this study as reasons for hesitating getting vaccinated or refusing to get vaccinated at all.

Other Round-Up highlights included virtual greetings by California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond and Education Trust West Executive Director, Dr. Christopher Nellum.  Panel discussions included: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness; Families and Educational Stakeholders: Maintaining an Equity Focus, Post-COVID; and Supporting the Mental Health of Black Students and Educational Stakeholders.

Founded in 1993, CAAASA is an education equity and advocacy organization that works through collaboration, network-building and direct community engagement to promote the success of African American, Latinx and other underserved California K-12 public school students and families.  CAAASA’s members include school superintendents, administrators, teachers and other educational professionals from throughout California.  

Although its primary focus is education, CAAASA has been at the forefront of numerous issues impacting the health of the African American community. Once vaccines became available within LA County, CAAASA hosted a webinar with noted medical professionals, to address the concerns of African American students, families and education stakeholders. Additionally, CAAASA is currently engaged in campaigns, funded by the County COVID-19 Community Equity Fund (CCCEF) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to provide individuals with valuable information about COVID-19, in the hope of increasing vaccine awareness among African Americans living in the Antelope Valley area.