When Black History Month rolls around, many are tempted to tell great stories of great heroes and heroines, Black warriors fighting for freedom against vile racists.
This isn’t that kind of story.
Years ago, when I was a reporter for Public Radio, I received a call from a man I knew from the Black Liberation Movement. He wanted to meet with me, but wouldn’t discuss it on the phone.
When I arrived at his apartment that night, his woman greeted me at the door and he ushered me into the bedroom. He took off his shirt, and turned on a weak light. When I saw his skin, I stepped back in shock, for there; from the nape of his neck to his thighs was riot of discoloration like I’d never seen before or since.
His body looked like that of a leopard; spotted, flayed, pocked with splashes of dark and light skin, kind of like a broken checker board of his torso.
In his dark eyes fought fury and shame, for years before, as a young man, he spent time in Holmesburg Prison, where, to make a few bucks, he volunteered for a University of Pennsylvania medical study. He signed up for what was called ‘the patch test’, where tape and bandages were applied to his body with chemicals in them.
The tapes would rip the flesh raw, and the wet bandages would be applied to this now open skin.
Men like him would get $10, $15, $20 or $25 added to their books for candy bars, cigarettes and commissary.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men, mostly Black men, participated in these tests and thought little of it –until years later.
The pittance of money would be long gone, but the scars and patches of those days lasted for years.
His name was Leodus Jones – and I’ll never forget his words –“I can’t even get with my woman, man,–I can’t let her see this stuff.”
Thousands of men, from the 1950s to the 1970s, — a true captive audience – participated in these experiments some went mad, others suffered for years.
The project head, meanwhile, made millions of dollars, as did the University, from discoveries gleaned from these experiments.
For example, have you ever heard of Retinol-A? It’s a cosmetic used to erase wrinkles.
It made Dr. Albert M. Kligman wealthy, as well as his partners.
The poor fellows who contributed their skin, their health, their well-being, got pennies – and pain.
Captives & Capitalism – and Exploitation – perfect together, eh?
So when I think of Black History Month, I think of those many men – grandfathers, perhaps, scarred for life, tortured in some cases, so that others could profit from their suffering.