The real Miss Evers’ Boys

Originally published in Cue.

Miss Evers’ Boys, the Pulitzer-nominated play by David Feldshuh, brought to Festival by the University of Oklahoma, is a horrifying story of racist exploitation.

This story is based on the real-life Tuskegee medical experiment, started in 1932 by the US Public Health Service. The trial enrolled 600 poverty-stricken black sharecroppers. Participants agreed to participate on the understanding that the trial was a treatment scheme for “bad blood” – a broad term for a variety of diseases at the time.

In reality, the study was an attempt to track the effects of syphilis in African-Americans. At the time it was believed that race was the determining factor as to how the disease affected individuals. Most of the men who signed up had been exposed to syphilis before the study began. These human guineapigs were promised free medical care, meals and burial insurance.

Despite penicillin being proven to cure syphilis in 1947, participants were not given access to the drug until 1972 when the unethical nature of the study was exposed in the press. The backlash from this revelation resulted in sweeping law changes in the US and inspired Feldshuh’s 1992 play.

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