The Case of “Marcellus” : A syphilis experiment

The Case of “Marcellus” : A syphilis experiment

Irony and happenstance occur sometimes when you least expect it. Not too long after a trip from Montgomery and Tuskegee, Alabama I spoke with my co-worker and she discussed how her father’s dementia was getting worse. At this point he had been missing for days and a silver alert was activated. For the sake of confidentiality and anonymity we will identify her father as Marcellus. After retaining her father’s medical records during a visit in 2019, she noticed something shocking. It read “Pt (patient) exposed at birth due to experimentation in African American males in the past. Patient reports being treated at the age 12.” Marcellus was part of a non-disclosed experiment as a child. Unfortunately, Marcellus and family had no autonomy over the fact of the matter, subject to whatever local and national health officials wanted to do. Marcellus grew up in a small town on the eastern coast of North Carolina in the 1930’s-1950’s before leaving for the military. 

The eastern coast of NC has always had a bountiful number of Africans Americans due to the institution of slavery. It is documented that formerly enslaved individuals in the region often crossed into Union troop occupied areas seeking to gain their freedom. These men served in the North Carolina African American Union regiments—the Thirty-fifth United States Colored Infantry, the Thirty-sixth United States Colored Infantry, the Thirty-seventh United States Colored Infantry, and the Fourteenth United States Colored Heavy Artillery. After the civil war many of these former soldiers and their families stayed in the region they cultivated for decades. 

It is no secret that medical “professionals” preyed on black bodies to complete their “research.” For the most part, who was going to advocate for those in the community outside of themselves. During the 1930’s there was still a decent number of formerly enslaved still living, if my assumptions are correct, if you were treated inhumanely while in bondage…why would that change as a free person?  In 1932 over 600 African American men in Macon County, Alabama were coerced into taking part in the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Males” which was conducted by the United States Public Health Service. The men were told they were receiving medication for “bad blood” but that wasn’t the case at all. USPHS’s objective was to explore how non-treatment of syphilis effected African Americans. Later it was found that penicillin was a safe treatment for syphilis but most were not treated. They essentially used the men as if they were racing horses and when there was no need for them, USPHS sent them out in the pasture to die or suffer from lifelong ailments due to the injection of syphilis.

Blood test and unidentified subject (National Archives, Atlanta, GA)
Photo Credit:×537.jpg

Obviously, word was sent up stream to North Carolina from Alabama because Marcellus was born 8 years after the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Males” which begs the question, just how long had these experiments been going on? Just how long were black men being used as “lab rats” to push the agenda of population control, barbaric behavior and supremacy. I have the answer. A LONG A$$ time. 

After the military, Marcellus did what he loved which was drive 18 wheelers working in New York for a while before returning to eastern North Carolina. A place that concealed painful memories of the past but was his home. My co-worker insists he never harped on the experiment and naturally wanted better for his children. Per my co-worker, her father did not trust doctors and he only once expressed “when we were younger they would do things to us while we were in our underwear.” The “WE” consisted of Marcellus and his brother who unfortunately succumbed to complications of syphilis. Marcellus wasn’t treated for syphilis until the age of 12.These instances leave painful reminders of how something that should be the most protected (our bodies) are devalued based on the color of one’s skin. The mere fact of stripping or never allowing anyone to have autonomy over their person is as evil as lucifer himself. 

In case you’re wondering, yes, Marcellus was found three days later in the state of Virginia. As one can imagine, my co-worker was frantic about the safety of her father, but also enraged on how the injection of syphilis could’ve possibly advanced or caused his state of dementia. Marcellus passed in the spring of 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Coping with death is never easy to do, but to know the very country in which one pays their taxes and have been a “good law-abiding citizen” in could do something so inherently evil, is enough to birth a streak of rage that only a black mother robbed of her innocent young who was simply being black can understand. 

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