Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church built in 1914.
The Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church was formed in 1870 in a small community near Tuskegee University known today as Notasulga, Alabama. By 1914 the congregation had bought 4 acres of land and completed building a church and the Shiloh-Rosenwald School. The school was completed with financial assistance from the Rosenwald Fund. Endowed by Julius Rosenwald CEO and co-owner of Sears Roebuck & Co., the Rosenwald Fund, was the result of a historic partnership between Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington. With design and engineering help from faculty at Tuskegee Institute, the fund paid for the construction of over 5,000 school facilities from Maryland to Texas. Shiloh’s Rosenwald School was one of six constructed during the inaugural phase of the project. It’s estimated that, at one time, the schools were capable of accommodating the needs of 1/3 of all African American school children in the South. Memories of these schools are colored with a strong sense of pride. In areas with little or no resources and zero state spending, they provided a formidable education to the children who attended.
While visiting Tuskegee, Alabama, StoryCorps Griot had the pleasure to meet Ms. Elizabeth Sims who grew up in the Shiloh Community. Ms. Sims came to StoryCorps to record fond memories of attending Shiloh Baptist Church and the Shiloh-Rosenwald School. She also came to remember a painful memory shared by the Shiloh Community.
Throughout much of the 1900′s there was one nurse to attend to the basic needs of Tuskegee children and their neighbors in the surrounding communities, including Shiloh. Her name was Mrs. Rivers. Elizabeth Sims’ dreaded seeing the nurse because it usually meant one thing: school shots. Like many children, she did not enjoy getting pricked by the nurse’s needle. During StoryCorps’ visit one Griot participant explained that unlike her portrayal in historical dramatizations, Mrs. Rivers was shy, soft-spoken, and not known for speaking up much beyond what was required of her in her responsibilities as the community nurse.
On a Sunday afternoon in 1932 Mrs. Rivers came to the Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. She had been sent by the U.S. Public Health Service to ‘inform’ the men in the congregation that they might have ‘bad blood.’ As a result, the government wanted to help them by providing blood tests, free health care and burial services. At the time, poor African Americans in the rural areas had no real access to adequate health care. (Even today, access to health care has not significantly improved.) Naturally the men of the Shiloh Baptist Church jumped at the opportunity. They had no idea what the government was secretly planning to do. The United States government wanted to infect each man with syphilis so as to study the effects of the disease.
The Shiloh Church was one of the first recruitment sites for a secret study that became to be known variously as the Tuskegee Experiment, The Tuskegee Syphilis Study or the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Contending that what the men suffered from was bad blood, the government intentionally infected participants with syphilis, watching them die so as to study their decline, with the end goal of performing autopsies to closely examine the effects of the disease. For forty years, from 1932 to 1972, the federal government conducted these studies on 399 men. Ms. Sims speculates that upwards of 40 of these men are buried in the Shiloh Cemetery. Her grandfather, father and uncles were some of the men who were unwittingly used. Untreated syphilis is a painfully brutal disease that erodes the brain, eyes, heart, arteries and bones virtually to dust. She watched her grandfather go blind and lose his mind, rendering him unable to work and provide. In a poor community of sharecroppers the physical destruction of the breadwinners was only one dimension of the destruction and anguish wrought by this government study. As a daughter and a sister Ms Sims needed to talk about these memories as a part of her healing. Her stories are a testament to the many dimensions of a story. And as a woman, especially an African American women, her story is one that is not often given the space and attention it deserves.
As part of her process of healing Elizabeth Sims is part of the Shiloh Community Restoration Project, an effort working to preserve the Rosenwald School and create grave markers for the men killed by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.