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Survivors of Cold War-era experiments on Black St. Louisans speak out in documentary

 In a scene from 'Target: St. Louis Vol. 1,' St. Louis resident Ben Philips visits the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project, where the U.S. military sprayed a chemical compound into the air for several years in the 1950s and '60s. [11/11/21]
St. Louis International Film Festival
In a scene from "Target: St. Louis Vol. 1," St. Louis resident Ben Philips visits the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project, where the U.S. military sprayed a chemical compound into the air for several years in the 1950s and '60s.

Many residents of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project and nearby north St. Louis neighborhoods witnessed something strange for a few years in the 1950s and again in the ‘60s. Men in protective suits regularly sprayed a mysterious mist into the air, from the tops of buildings and spouts attached to vehicles driving through the predominantly Black neighborhoods.

The U.S. government released documents in 1994 revealing that it had been spraying zinc cadmium sulfide, a toxic substance, in St. Louis and other cities as part of a military experiment.

A study commissioned by the Army three years later asserted that the experiment did not harm the health of people in St. Louis, though no thorough analysis of chronic health problems among the people who lived in the area has been conducted.

Many St. Louisans subjected to the experiment have long suspected that it made them sick. Lisa Martino-Taylor, now an associate professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, published research in 2012 suggesting that the government may have added a radioactive agent to the chemical compound.

Survivors tell their stories in “Target: St. Louis Vol. 1,” a documentary film by actor-director Damien D. Smith, a native of the Mark Twain neighborhood in north St. Louis. The film is available to stream through the St. Louis International Film Festival until Nov. 21.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin talked with Smith about the government experiment and what it says about how federal officials treated Black people in St. Louis.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: It seems like there’s a lot of intentionality behind the title of the film. Why is it called “Target: St. Louis”?

Damien D. Smith: They targeted us, in my opinion. They targeted St. Louis, as something that they can do something to a population and then walk away with no follow-up. They targeted my people, they targeted my community. They targeted my parents, my grandparents, everybody who was affected by this. This is our community. And when I learned about this I was really appalled.

Goodwin: The federal government has acknowledged that it sprayed this zinc cadmium sulfide into Pruitt-Igoe and predominantly Black neighborhoods. Has the government acknowledged that it made people sick by doing this?

Smith: The thing is they did no follow-up at that time period to see what happened to the people who they tested on. And then that just left the people to deal with the consequences of this.

Goodwin: So there hasn’t been a study saying that there is a higher incidence of cancer in this area? We just have lots and lots of people talking about their experiences.

Smith: These people are talking about their experiences. They’re talking about a recollection of what happened in their community. These are firsthand accounts.

Goodwin: Do we know why the government did this?

Smith: Yes. The government was saying that this aerosol spray study was to put together a defensive weapon to protect an American city if Moscow comes over and tries to drop bombs on an American city. The city can release this cloud of smoke that’s going to confuse the bombers. But in actuality, it was found through evidence that actually they may have been putting together an offensive weapon to attack Moscow.

Goodwin: How did they describe Pruitt-Igoe in those documents?

Sneed: A slum district. These are the facts that I’m speaking about. And then the people that were there can tell you what they saw and what happened. And that’s what we focus on in "Target St. Louis Vol 1." The stories from people who were there. How it made them feel. The psychological toll that it takes on a human being. Everyone is in there telling their story because they want this not to happen to the next generation.

It goes back to us having to prove, show and let you see and alert you to the humanity in this. We have to, time and time again, prove our humanity and show our humanity so you — meaning, the powers that be — will recognize it.

Goodwin: When you reached out to people who lived through this, did they want to talk about it?

Smith: Yes, very much so. They wanted to talk about this subject nonstop. It was never an issue of me having to sit down and pull this conversation out of people, no. These were people who were really ready and prepared to have a conversation about this, because they’ve been holding it in for so long.

One of the major consequences of tests like this is that you lose peace of mind. These people never had peace of mind. They were always questioning. Their biggest goal was to make sure that it doesn’t happen to the next generation of St. Louisans.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.