If you're an outsider and you happen to stumble upon an African-American barbershop, or a pickup basketball game, or maybe you find yourself catching wind of a conversation on a street like Harlem’s 125th Street in New York City. As an outsider you may be shocked by some of the incredible stories one may hear. Stories told about how the A.I.D.’s Virus is a man-made disease unleashed as a form of population control on the black community, or that black people are being killed and their organs are being harvested and transplanted into the bodies of the rich and elite who are in need. More recently there is a belief that "they" are dropping crates of guns in black neighborhoods like Chicago, so that black gang affiliated youth may use it on each other in a form of self-genocide. If you are an outsider or even an insider, but more on the conservative side you may find all of this to be unbelievable nonsense. You may say to yourself "these people are a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorist whose ideas verge on the edge of paranoia!"
The question has to be asked is it true paranoia, or is the paranoia justified because it is based in real historical realities. After reading Harriet Washington’s amazingly dense and well footnoted Medical Apartheid among other things I’ve come to the conclusion that it's the latter.
For Africans-Americans the history of medicine in the United States begins on the plantation as slaves. Slave masters would purchase slaves for a number of reasons such as field hands, house servants, blacksmiths, and musicians; however, a slave could also be purchased for the primary purpose of medical experimentation. President Thomas Jefferson as well as Dr. Edward Jenner the supposed inventor of the “first” vaccine all performed medical experiments on black slaves. The “Father of Gynecology” J. Marion Sims perfected his craft by first performing experiments on enslaved women. In fact Robert Thoms created an oil painting about Sims titled “J Marion Sims: Gynecological Surgeon.” The painting is very calm and serene as it shows a willing slave woman named Betsy on an operating table, meanwhile a contemplative Sims ponders on.
The painting is actually a far cry from reality to say the least. Enslaved women would often kick, scream, and fight as they were held down by Sim’s colleagues, while he operated on their vaginas without any anesthesia. This was all part of the pseudo-science of the time that believed that the black nervous system was different than the white nervous system, and that blacks felt less pain. In order to make the women more complaint Sims would addict them to morphine making them drug addicts essentially. Keep in mind that this is the man that monuments are built for and titles like “The Father of Gynecology” are bestowed upon.
Experimentation on the black body goes well beyond the plantation. Even in death black bodies were not granted peace. Universities like Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania were all known to desecrate African-American graveyards, as so-called “Resurrection Men” went bodysnatching for cadavers to dissect and study.
This all seems like its straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel, but this unfortunately was much more real. Bodysnatching became so bad at the African Burial Grounds that the black community of New York wrote a letter protesting for the practice to stop. The practice would not slow down or gain much attention until a white body was snatched and the local white community attacked the hospital in what today is known as the Doctor’s Riot. Doctor’s feared for their lives and locked themselves in jail cells to survive the ordeal.
If it wasn’t experimentation or gravesite desecration then it was black bodies being put on display and objectified. Ota Benga was an African pygmy from the Congo who was put on display in the Bronx Zoo.
He was kept in a cage with a gorilla and a chimpanzee even though the local black population protested. He was released from the zoo after getting into fights defending himself against white crowds. Later in life he would slip into depression and committed suicide. Ota Benga’s female counterpart was a South African Khoi woman by the name of Sara Baartman who was put on sexual display in Paris. Baartman was paraded around so that white crowds could stare at her physique. Like Benga she too would become depressed becoming a heavy drinker before she died. In death her body was chopped, pickled, and placed in jars as souvenir.
Many know Margaret Sanger as a darling of the Women’s Movement because she was a strong supporter of contraceptives and the birth control pill; however, Sanger has a more nuanced reputation in the African-American community even among black women. Sanger has been scorned by Civil Rights activist Angela Davis as well as writer Harriet Washington for her controversial Negro Project. The Negro Project was an early form of Planned Parenthood that tried to limit the number of children born to poor black families. Sanger not only believed that these communities could not afford to have children but that these communities were also more susceptible to crime. Sanger was able to guile many black leaders like W.E.B Dubois, Mary Mcleod Bethune and many local ministers to hop aboard her project. I have always been mystified by both conservatives and progressives, and how they make poor people the problem instead of solving poverty which is the real issue. No one seems to be telling rich white guys like Mitt Romney or Donald Trump to stop having kids.
It all did not stop with “willing” forms of birth control, if results could not be gained through encouragement and propaganda then it would have to be gained through the use of forced sterilization. Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hammer recalls when she was young going to the hospital for a stomach pain and leaving with a hysterectomy that she did not give willing consent to. Indeed in a class-action lawsuit brought by the Atlanta Southern Poverty Law Center 150,000 women were sterilized against their will, most of them being black. Birth control has always been closely if not dangerously linked to the Eugenics Movement.
Eugenics was a belief that certain people should be allowed to breed and certain people were too “unfit” to breed, “unfit” historically usually meant either poor or black. Eugenics was always closely connected to racism as certain races were viewed as superior and others inferior. It is not a surprise at all then that Nazi Germany was fascinated by American eugenics. The Nazi’s followed the American movement closely and intensely read American medical journals.
One of the biggest playgrounds for black medical experimentation was the prison system. This should not come as shock for one the American prison system is mostly black, and they are a very vulnerable group with very few rights, so they can be very easily coaxed and manipulated for small acts of money or freedom. The most famous case of prison experimentation was the Holmesburg Prison experiments run by University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Dr. Albert M. Kligman. Kligman would test harmful chemicals, shampoos, cosmetics, and powders on the skin of inmates for a few dollars. These chemicals would cause pain, baldness, scarring, and permanent skin and nail injury.
Famous companies like Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and DuPont were all involved in the prison experimentation at Holmesburg Prison. It goes beyond harmful shampoo though the C.I.A. would eventually get involved using Kligman to help them conduct the infamous MK-Ultra experiments. Prisoners were given strong doses of LSD as the C.I.A. experimented with brainwashing techniques. One prisoner named Jesse Williams stated “I used to be into nonconfrontational crimes….but after the mind test, I was a different person, more confrontational. I would go to bars actively seeking trouble.” On the flip side in the 1970s psychosurgery like lobotomies and electrode experiments were performed on blacks to render them into a more passive “zombie like state.” This was all done by world famous neurologist in response to the Watts and Detroit riots who did not see the riots to be caused by poverty but by a violent black mind.
Black prisoners were not the only human guinea pigs to be tested on but whole black communities of law abiding citizens were tested on in both Georgia and Florida in something that seems like its taken straight from an X-Files episode. The CIA unleashed a swarm of mosquitos on the black towns of Carver Village, Florida and Carver Village, Georgia. The goal was to see if weaponized insects like mosquitos could deliver first attack diseases like Yellow Fever in case we ever went to war with communist Russia. Dozens of black people either died or suffered long lasting illnesses because of these experiments.
Probably the most famous of medical experimentation on blacks would have to be the Tuskegee Experiment of 1932, so named because it took place in Macon County, Alabama at Tuskegee Institute. 600 black men were tested for syphilis of which 400 had the disease. The government told these men that they would help treat them, but this was all a lie. The government only gave the sick men aspirin for their disease because the real goal was not to cure them but to monitor the disease. In 1943 when it was discovered that penicillin cures syphilis the men were still not treated they were watched. In 1996 even the White House had to acknowledge the wrong done as President Bill Clinton offered a public apology to the men who were experimented on.
It must be pointed out that though the Tuskegee Experiment is often cited it is important to remember that this type of medical experimentation in the black community was by far not an isolated case. Blacks have been tested on and exploited throughout the centuries, so the next time your around black people and hear them “go off” about conspiracy theories don’t simply write it off with an “eye roll” because it is apparently clear that when it comes to the black community conspiracies really do happen.
Harriet Washington. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History Of Medical Experimentation From Colonial Times To The Present. 2006. Doubleday.
James H. Jones. Bad Blood. 1981. Free Press.
Dorothy Roberts. Killing The Black Body. 1997. Random House.
Edwin Black. War Against The Weak: Eugenics And America's Campaign To Create A Master Race. 2003. Four Walls Eight Windows.
John Marks. The Search For The Manchurian Candidate: The CIA And Mind Control The Secret History Of The Behavioral Sciences. 1979. Norton & Company.