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The Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s “It’s Up To You” Campaign Highlights Stories from Descendants of the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee to Help Foster Confidence in the COVID-19 Vaccines

From Tragedy to Triumph, the New Short-Form Documentary Illustrates the Enduring Legacy of the Men Involved in the Study and its Impact on Public Health

New York, NY, June 30, 2021 – As part of their ongoing COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative and “It’s Up To You” campaign, the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative today announced a new short-form documentary in partnership with descendants of the men involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. The film, created by director Deborah Riley Draper, production company Coffee Bluff Pictures and creative agency JOY Collective in conjunction with Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation and Black Coalition Against COVID-19, elevates a very personal and often unheard perspective on the legacy of the study, providing a rare opportunity for audiences to hear directly from the families involved in and impacted by the study. It sets the record straight on what happened, what has changed and what current generations can learn from the experience to build confidence in public health within Black communities, especially as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccines.

“The loving human beings involved in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee were our fathers, grandfathers, uncles and cousins. Unfortunately, until recent years, references to their humanity were not detailed in medical research or academic writings, and some information and beliefs about the study continue to be unknown, ill-perceived and misleading,” said Lillie Tyson Head, President of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation. “We should not allow anyone who needs and wants a COVID-19 vaccine to not have their questions answered – or be denied the opportunity to get it, like the men in the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee. We must protect ourselves and each other.”

The U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was conducted from 1932 through 1972 by the United States government. During the study, more than 600 Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama were made to believe that they were receiving free medical care – when they, in fact, were not receiving treatment. More than a hundred men died from syphilis or its complications by the end of the study. The Tuskegee Study continues to have an important impact on perceptions and trust to this day, but many people do not know the full story. Over time, there have been widespread misunderstandings of the study, and many family members of the men involved feel their narratives have been unfairly portrayed throughout the years. Today, descendants of these men are working to reframe the narrative and build trust through public service and public health.

According to recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly a quarter (22%) of Black Americans are taking a “wait and see” approach to the COVID-19 vaccines. At a time when individuals and families have been presented with the critical decision of whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the film’s goal is to let history inspire and empower people to make the best decisions about their health.

The film includes seven stories introducing the men of the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee as fathers, grandfathers, uncles and pillars of the community. Shedding light on how the descendants have worked to reconcile the shame and tragedy of the study, the stories illustrate how understanding the past can help create a better, more informed present and a thriving future.

The film features stories from a generational mix of the study’s descendants, including:

  • Amy Pack, great niece of Seth Barrow. Pack is a retired public health nurse who visited with men in the study through her job as a nurse in Macon County.
  • Carmen Head Thornton, granddaughter of Freddie Lee Tyson. Thornton is a Howard University graduate and currently serves as the Director of Research, Grants & Workforce and Interim Director of Development at American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
  • Elise Marie Tolbert, great granddaughter of two men who were part of the study. Tolbert is an Environmental Health Scientist and the Founder and CEO of Next Step Up mentoring and tutoring.
  • Dr. Kimberly Carr, great great granddaughter of John Goode. Dr. Carr received her PhD in Integrative Biosciences in 2020 from Tuskegee University and currently works as a Community Resource Specialist at the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center.
  • Leo Ware, whose two grandfathers were both part of the study. Ware is a business owner and is active with the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation.
  • Lillie Tyson Head, daughter of Freddie Lee Tyson and President of the Voices For Our Fathers Legacy Foundation. Head is a retired high school teacher and education consultant.
  • Omar Neal, nephew of Freddie Lee Tyson and Former Mayor of Tuskegee. Neal was born in the same hospital ward where the Tuskegee Study took place.

The new content can be found at The film, and shorter versions of the full film, will run nationwide in time and space donated by the media per the Ad Council’s model.

“Throughout our work over the past several months to educate the public about the COVID-19 vaccines, the Tuskegee Study has come up consistently as a core example of distrust when speaking with the Black community,” said Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council. “We knew we needed to address this important piece of history, and we’re honored to be using our platform to share these powerful and moving stories from descendants of those who were involved – to help shed some light on these inspiring men, their legacy and their dedication to improving public health for generations to come.”

“Honoring and centering stories and people that shed light on the African American lived experience is vital to me as a filmmaker,” said Deborah Riley Draper, Founder of Coffee Bluff Pictures. “This campaign for the Ad Council allows me to contribute to our cultural inheritance as a storyteller and inspire our community to learn about ways to protect our present and our future. I am in a wonderfully reflective, creative, and grateful place because of this project and because I had access to and took the vaccine.”

Deborah Riley Draper is an award-winning and critically-acclaimed filmmaker, author, motivational speaker, and advertising agency veteran. Earlier this month, she produced and directed the two-episode special "The Legacy of Black Wall Street" on OWN. Variety Magazine named Draper to their "2016 Top 10 Documakers to Watch" list. She is a member of the Film Fatales and a Facebook SEEN Program Alum and mentor.

“To collaborate on this beautiful campaign and honor these men and their families has been a highlight of my creative career,” said Kelli Richardson Lawson, Founder and CEO of JOY Collective. “We are proud to collaborate with a village of Black women, including our production partners at Coffee Bluff and the Ad Council to highlight the humanity of these men while helping our community overcome the distrust and fear that we often face.”

JOY Collective is a Black- and women-owned marketing and creative agency who has partnered with the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative on their “It’s Up To You” COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative to lead the engagement efforts for Black communities around COVID-19 vaccines. JOY has created a multiplatform campaign designed to resonate with the Black community, including custom PSAs, grassroots events and partnerships with influencers, faith and community leaders, medical experts and more.

This content is part of the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative’s COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative and the “It’s Up To You” campaign, which includes creative assets developed by Pereira O’Dell, JOY Collective, Alma, iHeartMedia, Group SJR, Values Partnerships and other partners to ensure the American public has the latest and most accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Leading contributors to date include Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, Cisco, CVS Health, Facebook, General Motors, Google and YouTube, the Humana Foundation, NBCUniversal/Comcast, Reckitt, Salesforce, Verizon, Walgreens and Walmart. Significant contributions have also been provided by Adobe, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, BNY Mellon, Budweiser/Anheuser-Busch Foundation, Business Roundtable, Caterpillar Foundation, Citi, Ford Motor Company, Honeywell, JPMorgan Chase, Kaiser Permanente, Mastercard, the New York Life Foundation, Stanley Black & Decker, Synchrony, Target, Unilever, Wells Fargo and ViacomCBS.

“For more than 40 years of my advocacy for the health of African Americans, I have confronted the tragic repercussions of what was originally called ‘The US Public Health’s Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male’ on the relationship between America’s health research and medical care enterprises and people of color," said Dr. Reed Tuckson, M.D., Co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19. “The painful seeds of distrust resulting from this experience continue to reverberate through Black culture and, as a result, too often result in misguided personal health choices that foster continuing health disparities in African Americans when compared to other populations. It is our hope that the perspectives presented by the descendants of the study's participants will help to motivate all of us to translate our legitimate anger into positive and health-affirming actions.”

“Our survey of Black Americans showed how historical trauma and distrust caused by the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee was central to a lack of confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines,” said John Bridgeland, CEO of the COVID Collaborative. “Giving voice to these concerns and learning from a painful past are central to improving public health now and in the future.”

For more information and answers to top questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit

The Ad Council
The Ad Council has a long history of creating life-saving public service communications in times of national crisis, starting in the organization's earliest days during World War II to September 11th and natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Its deep relationships with media outlets, the creative community, issue experts and government leaders make the organization uniquely poised to quickly distribute life-saving information to millions of Americans.

The Ad Council is where creativity and causes converge. The non-profit organization brings together the most creative minds in advertising, media, technology and marketing to address many of the nation's most important causes. The Ad Council has created many of the most iconic campaigns in advertising history. Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk. Smokey Bear. Love Has No Labels.

The Ad Council's innovative social good campaigns raise awareness, inspire action and save lives. To learn more, visit, follow the Ad Council's communities on Facebook and Twitter and view the creative on YouTube.

COVID Collaborative
COVID Collaborative, a project of UNITE, is a national assembly of experts, leaders and institutions in health, education and the economy and associations representing the diversity of the country to turn the tide on the pandemic by supporting federal, state and local COVID-19 response efforts.

The COVID Collaborative is co-chaired by former Governor and U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) and former Governor Deval Patrick (D-MA) and led by CEO John Bridgeland and President Gary Edson. COVID Collaborative includes expertise from across Republican and Democratic administrations at the federal, state and local levels, including former FDA commissioners, CDC directors, and U.S. surgeon generals; former U.S. secretaries of Education, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services; leading public health experts and institutions that span the country; the Business Roundtable, National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the NAACP, UnidosUS and the National Congress of American Indians; the Skoll Foundation, The Allstate Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation; and associations representing those on the front lines, from the American Public Health Association and Association of State and Territorial Health Officials to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools. Tim Shriver is Chairman of UNITE.

To learn more, visit, and follow the COVID Collaborative on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Ben Dorf

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