COVID-19 vaccines recall decades of deception and pain for Black Americans

In 1932, 623 Black men were unknowingly recruited for a syphilis study but were kept from a cure. Many Black Americans are still skeptical of the health care system, including COVID-19 vaccines.
9:40 | 12/18/20

Coming up in the next {{countdown}} {{countdownlbl}}

Coming up next:



Skip to this video now

Now Playing:


Related Extras
Related Videos
Video Transcript
Transcript for COVID-19 vaccines recall decades of deception and pain for Black Americans
Silence and solitude. Lily tyson-head needs a bit of both as she reflecthe trauma of her family's past, ile leaning on faith in the future. Things have changed. Things have gotten better. But still needs to get a whole lot better. Reporter: Celebrations across the country hitting fever pitch as the new covid-19 vaccine begins to arrive. This long-awaited moment providing hope for so many amidst the pandemic. A study by the Kaiser family foundation found 71% of Americans say they definitely or probably will get the covid-19 vaccine. But black Americans are far more hesitant. 35% say they probably or definitely will not get the vaccine. I want to know how much of the people who are doing the trials of the vaccine are African-American. I'm still on the fence about the actual vaccine. And the African-American community, we never really receive anything that's going to be beneficial for us in the beginning. Reporter: That distrust is well earned. Lily's father was an unwitting player in one of the darkest chapters of our nation's My father was Freddie Lee my father is our hero. Reporter: A share cropper in Alabama in 1932, Freddie Lee Tyson was one of 623 black men recruited into a medical study. We now know it as the infamous syphilis study at tuskegee. Freddie thought it was a program to provide free health care. He had no idea the docts' O interest was to study the infection he had been born with. They did not tell them they had syphilis. The only thing they told them, they had bad blood and they were treating the bad blood. But they were not, they were lying to the people. Reporter: The study was run by the U.S. Public health service. White doctors hoping to chart the natural progression of syphilis in black men. What did your father think he was partipating in? I would say they were looking to better their health and to better their conditions. He did not know that he was in a study. Freddie did not know. Reporter: The government went extremes to keep it that way. Even when penicillin became a safe and reliable cure, the study doctors actively prevented the men from getting it, circulating secret lists asking health providers not to treat them. Some of the men were drafted into World War II. The researchers had them rejected from the army so their syphilis would not be treated. Talk about the misinformation surrounding the study. Some people still think the men were injected with the virus. They were not. Reporter: The truth about the study didn't surface until four decades later, in 1972, when a whistle-blower outed the When the CDC first called him, he was quite upset. He was angry. And I also saw some shame. Shame? Say more. Shame because he had been deceived. You have to understand, my father was a proud man. And hss honest. And our government treated him like a lab animal. Right. These men deserved better. Their dignity was taken away from them. The basic human needs of a person stripped from them. Reporter: The syphilis study reinforced a painful reminder of the racism stitched in the very fabric of the medical system. As for the mistrust, I think it comes from the way that we have been treated over 400 years. The disparities, the criminal injustices, the social injustices, the economic injustices, the educational injustices. Reporter: Lily's daughter, Carmen head-thornton, went into health care to change the system. Health care workers on one side, those needing care and needing vaccines on the other. We need more people on the health care worker side. Reporter: That river of mistrust is at the very heart of the mission at the Harry clinic in Nashville, Tennessee. We recognized the pandemic was devastating people of color. We felt compelled as an organization we had to be involved and do something. Reporter: Dr. James Hildreth is the president of the medical college, the first medical school for African-Americans in the south. The impact we've had on the health of minority populations in this country is very significant. Reporter: Right now the college and its clinic are moving to center stage in the battle against covid-19. Harry is working with novavax on maze three of its vaccine trial. The challenge, recruiting black, latinx, and other minority groups to participate. Their secret weapon, the doctors themselves. Dr. Vladamir berto, Dr. Raj Singh, are running the study. What do you know about the vaccine? Almost nothing. It's very safe and there will be no cost to you or your insurance. Reporter: One of the concerns about the covid vaccine centers around how fast it was developed, taking months instead of years. Experts say the shortcuts were not the science, instead, speeding up approvals and distribution. I'm truly excited about it. Honestly, I'm in awe of what has happened. But there are great reasons for why it's happened so fast. Reporter: Dr. Hildreth says in order to rally support in communities of color, it's also important to spotlight the medical professionals behind them. Messages are fine. You can have wonderful messages. But if the msenger is not trusted, not going to be very effective. Reporter: One of the trusted messengers, reverend Liz walker. How can you be so certain taking this vaccine is the right choice for you? From what I've seen of covid-19, the greater risk is to sick. So for me, there's no Reporter: Walker is an icon in Boston. I'm list walker, I just joined this team, and I'm so glad to be here. Reporter: She was the first black woman to anchor the evening news in the city. Thank you all for being here. Reporter: Walker is now the senior pastor at Roxbury presbyterian church, in neighbors she likens to the biblical story of the good samaritan. I call the neighborhood the Jericho road. You never know who's going to stop by or who's in need right outside our front door. So we are a community church. Social justice is our foundation. Reporter: In order to get the good word to her flock, reverend walker threw up a hail Mary, emailing Dr. Anthony Fauci. Not expecting the nation's leading infectious disease doctor to actually respond. But he did. We are so blessed to have you, Dr. Fauci. You had Dr. Fauci come to your church via zoom. You know, faith. This was a god thing. I had no idea that he would. But I knew I wanted to get as much information as I could to my congregation and the community at large. Reporter: Walker realizes in some cases she's fighting an uphill battle with her congregation. I was frankly surprised how many people were resistant. They talk about going to the doctor and having the doctor ignore them, going to the doctor and having the doctor dismiss their complaints. The problem's not with us, it's not my community that's the the problem is with the system. The thing about the vaccine that I want my congregation to know, this is an act of love. It's an act of survival. Very much so. But it's also an act of love. Reporter: Love and faith, two guiding principles so many can relate to. Like lily tyson-head, who believes her father's story should not sow doubt, it should build faith. As they say,f you don't know your history, you're bound to repeat it. Based on your family's history, would you take the vaccine? Without any hesitation. As soon as the vaccine is available for me, I'm taking it. And all of my siblings that are still living all say they will take the vaccine. There's real reason why you and your family might be suspicious of this kind of program, but no hesitation at all? No. We have to step forward and not be afraid to make our lives better. Reporter: Freddie Lee Tyson died in 1988. None of the doctors were ever held accountable in court. You have to be in a place where we move past rage. Because rage and anger clouds our capacity to be strategic, to really be engaged in making a ererence that destroys and deconstructs structural racism. Reporter: These women fueled not by rail, but by purpose. Their foundation, voices for our father's legacy, providing scholarships and financial support for other descendents, changing the story from victim to Victor, from tragedy to I'd imagine deacon Fraley Tyson is awful proud of you. Well, I hope he approves of how I'm doing. I pray every day that my voice is not my voice, but the voice of those men. Because they were forgotten. And they're unsung heroes. And at this time, during this season, I think it's important that we lend their voices to the conversation of today. Our thanks to the families

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

{"duration":"9:40","description":"In 1932, 623 Black men were unknowingly recruited for a syphilis study but were kept from a cure. Many Black Americans are still skeptical of the health care system, including COVID-19 vaccines.","mediaType":"default","section":"ABCNews/Nightline","id":"74795923","title":"COVID-19 vaccines recall decades of deception and pain for Black Americans","url":"/Nightline/video/covid-19-vaccines-recall-decades-deception-pain-black-74795923"}