Virginia lawmakers have decided not to move forward with legislation that would officially apologize for the state-sanctioned misuse of Black body parts over the past two centuries.
As far back as the 1800s, Old Dominion allowed medical professionals to conduct research on African-American bodies, living and dead, without their or their family’s permission. Some politicians were hoping in vain the state legislature would own up to exploitation.
However, on Friday, Feb. 17, the Rules subcommittee of Virginia’s House of Delegates voted 4-1 to lay SJ 274 on the table. This act, according to the Virginia Mercury, indefinitely killed the resolution.
Four Republicans among the subcommittee’s five members, House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, Speaker Todd Gilbert, Del. Barry Knight, and Del. Kathy Byron, shut it down.
Titled “Unethical use of Black bodies by medical institutions; acknowledging with profound regret,” the bill was introduced by Democratic Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko of Fairfax.
During her presentation of the bill, she said it was important to acknowledge the past wrongs perpetrated by the government in order to heal wounds created by those wrongdoings.
Gilbert, one of the Republicans who voted against the resolution, said during the meeting, “I feel like there are thousands upon thousands of equally painful and hurtful and regrettable stories that could be told about how we treated one another, how Black Americans were treated for a very long time in this country. And I just worry that there’s no end to these resolutions, and maybe that’s the intent, I don’t know.”
One example of this was when the Medical College of Virginia hired grave robbers to steal Black bodies for medical experimentation in the 1800s when they did not have cadavers available for research.
“But certainly,” he continued. “If it helps for me to acknowledge that fact, that there are these many, many hurtful, painful memories and events and actions that hurt so many people, you know, I’m doing that publicly right now.”
“I just don’t know in the way of legislation how we contribute to that healing by acknowledging one or two a year at a time. That’s my main concern,” he concluded.
After the bill was not affirmed, Boysko said, “I think it’s important that we address problems so we can move forward collaboratively. We know there are Black people who live in Virginia and around the country who are suspicious of health care because of what has happened in the past.”
Adding, “Our bill would have at least admitted that and given people a small peace of mind.”
Phillip Thompson, the former president of the Loudoun NAACP, believed the resolution would pass because it was supported by many in the senate already, unanimously being passed in that branch of government. However, the House of Delegates proved to be a barrier to the measure.
He said, “I thought it had a chance because it’s a very innocuous bill. We weren’t asking for reparations, nothing like that; we just wanted a real apology.”
Thompson also added that he believes it was so difficult to persuade African-Americans to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of the mistrust born out of the nation’s history of medical mistreatment, including The Tuskegee Experiment.
From 1932 to 1972, about 400 African-American men with syphilis participated in The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male by the United States Public Health Service
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study initially involved 600 Black men (399 with syphilis, and 201 who did not have the disease). Participants were told they were being treated for “bad blood” but never had informed consent collected.
Despite being in the study, which looked at the sexually transmitted disease, anemia, and fatigue, the men were never offered penicillin to treat their syphilis. Instead, for research purposes, they were allowed to suffer.
“When the COVID vaccines first came out in my community, a lot of African-Americans didn’t want to take those vaccines because they thought that it was like the Tuskegee experiment,” Thompson explained. “Back in the ’30s and 40s, young kids were told don’t stray too far because the body snatchers will get you.”
Boysko explained in her bill presentation that this kind of warning was plausible.
She reminded the group that in April 1994, nine of the 53 bodies discovered in Richmond’s East Marshall Street Well dug up on Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Campus were discovered to be mostly from Black children. The human bones found at the well are believed to have been discarded in the 1800s by medical staff.
“Many of us still don’t trust the system, and when you look at history, that distrust is justified,” Thompson said.
In September, Virginia Commonwealth University formally apologized for its discarding of Black bodies after dissections. It also issued an apology to the family of Bruce Tucker, a Black Virginia laborer whose heart was removed after his condition was deemed too severe in 1968.