illustration by Samantha Miduri for use by 360 Magazine

Celebrating Black Descendants from Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Last week at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium, Ad Council COVID Collaborative Black Coalition Against COVID-19 JOY Collective The Legacy: Tragedy to Triumph, featuring descendants of The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee speaking about the impact of the study and its relationship to present day’s COVID-19 vaccines.

The Legacy: Tragedy to Triumph is an extension of the It’s Up To You COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative that the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative developed to help consumers get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines, with a focus on Black and Hispanic/Latino communities. Many of the descendants who participated in the film were keen to stress distinctions between the study and the pandemic, highlighting that unlike the case for their relatives in the study, the COVID-19 vaccines are being offered to all Americans and not withheld from specific communities.

The event included a screening of the short documentary, followed by panel conversations about COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Black populations. Esteemed Director Deborah Riley Draper the first discussion with five descendants, where they shared how they first learned about family members involved in the study, their experiences filming the documentary, and a call to public service that compelled them to share their stories. The following descendants participated in the screening event: 

  • Lillie Tyson Head, daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson and President of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation. Head is a retired high school teacher and education consultant. 
  • Carmen Head Thornton, granddaughter of Freddie Lee Tyson. Thornton is a Howard University graduate and currently serves as the Director of Research, Grants & Workforce, and Interim Director of Development at the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 
  • Dr. Kimberly Carr, the great-great-granddaughter of John Goode. Dr. Carr received her Ph.D. in Integrative Biosciences in 2020 from Tuskegee University and currently works as a Community Resource Specialist at the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center. 
  • Omar Neal, nephew of Freddie Lee Tyson and Former Mayor of Tuskegee. Neal was born in the same hospital ward where the Tuskegee Study took place. 
  • Leo Ware, whose two grandfathers were both part of the study. Ware is a business owner and is active with the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation. 

The second panel discussion explored the science of vaccines and data related to current levels of vaccine adoption in the Black community and the need to keep this important yet painful history top of mind. 

  • Dr. Cameron Webb, Senior Policy Advisor for Equity White House COVID-19 Response Team. 
  • Dr. Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19
  • Howard University School of Medicine medical students Micah Brown and Jasmin Thompson 
  • Descendants Dr. Kimberly Carr and Carmen Head Thornton 

Additional Participants Included: 

  • Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health, sharing remarks on behalf of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser 
  • CEO of the Howard University Hospital Anita Jenkins discussing the imperative to center the needs of the Black community given the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic. 
  • Sherry Thompson, Coalition Lead, Ad Council COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative 
  • Kelli Richardson Lawson, CEO of JOY Collective, moderated the event by sharing with guests that the impetus for the project came from an article in The Washington Post Magazine about the  It’s Up To You campaign. 

About the Film 

Directed by award-winning director and head of Coffee Bluff Pictures Deborah Riley Draper, the film follows members of six descendant families as they discuss how the study connects to the present-day pandemic and why they encourage Black Americans to learn the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their loved ones. Accompanying the film are five 60-second PSAs that together comprise the film. Each of the PSAs and the full documentary film are available online here.

For many Black Americans, the recurring theme over the last 16 months has been about Tuskegee and the collective distrust of both the medical field and government. The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative launched the It’s Up To You COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative earlier this year in full acknowledgment of the vaccine hesitancy among some members of the Black community that is often driven by The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, commonly referred to as the Tuskegee Study. 

Connections to COVID-19 

For descendants of the men in the study, sharing the truth about what happened during the study is an opportunity to move from tragedy to triumph. 

In addition, details released from the study sparked a wave of public health and clinical research reforms and protocols that continue today, including the creation of institutional review boards in the U.S. to ensure that every study conducted on human beings is examined; and informed consent requirements, not just for clinical trials but for medical procedures as well.

In between the two panels, Washington, D.C.-based artist and muralist, Candice S. Taylor presented a special painting she created in honor of the film and descendants of the study who participated in the campaign, for whom she will provide individual prints of the new artwork. Following the panel discussions, R&B singer and songwriter Raheem DeVaughn, also hailing from the Nation’s Capital, gave a special performance of his chart-topping hit song,  Woman.

The event celebrating  The Legacy: Tragedy to Triumph film was streamed live via Roland Martin Unfiltered and is now available on YouTube and clips will be available on the NAACP’s YouTube

To learn more about the It’s Up To You campaign, The Legacy: Tragedy to Triumph film, and the descendants of The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study At Tuskegee, visit

The Ad Council

The Ad Council has a long history of creating life-saving public service communications in times of national crisis, starting in the organization’s earliest days during World War II to September 11th and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Its deep relationships with media outlets, the creative community, issue experts, and government leaders make the organization uniquely poised to quickly distribute life-saving information to millions of Americans.

The Ad Council is where creativity and causes converge. The non-profit organization brings together the most creative minds in advertising, media, technology, and marketing to address many of the nation’s most important causes. The Ad Council has created many of the most iconic campaigns in advertising history. Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk. Smokey Bear. Love Has No Labels.

The Ad Council’s innovative social good campaigns raise awareness, inspire action and save lives. To learn more, visit, follow the Ad Council’s communities on Facebook and Twitter, and view the creative on YouTube

COVID Collaborative 

COVID Collaborative, a project of UNITE, is a national assembly of experts, leaders, and institutions in health, education, and the economy and associations representing the diversity of the country to turn the tide on the pandemic by supporting federal, state, and local COVID-19 response efforts.

The COVID Collaborative is co-chaired by former Governor and U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) and former Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA) and led by CEO John Bridgeland and President Gary Edson. COVID Collaborative includes expertise from across Republican and Democratic administrations at the federal, state, and local levels, including former FDA commissioners, CDC directors, and U.S. surgeon generals; former U.S. secretaries of Education, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services; leading public health experts and institutions that span the country; the Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the NAACP, UnidosUS and the National Congress of American Indians; the Skoll Foundation, The Allstate Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation; and associations representing those on the front lines, from the American Public Health Association and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools. Tim Shriver is Chairman of UNITE. To learn more, visit, and follow the COVID Collaborative on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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