BACKGROUND: Cancer mortality rates for all sites are nearly 2.5 times greater for African-Americans compared with whites. In addition, there are data implying that cancer treatment outcomes for minorities are unfavorable compared with whites. Whether this is due to poor access to health care or a biologic property of malignancies occurring in specific populations remains to be determined. Because of these unknown factors, targeting minorities for clinical trials may contribute toward the reduction of the overall morbidity and mortality associated with specific cancers. METHODS: The current study describes the establishment of a genuine collaborative partnership between the targeted minority community and clinical investigators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. This partnership was formed for the purpose of identifying strategies that would enhance the accrual and retention of minority participants into current and future cancer prevention and control trials. Focus groups and key informant interviews were conducted to ascertain the community's perception of participating in clinical trials. RESULTS: The majority of focus group participants were unclear regarding the nature of clinical trials. Participants indicated that they would participate in research studies if they received adequate information regarding the purpose and benefits of the study, and if the charge came from a pastor or physician. Barriers to participation included time commitments, family obligations, whether blood was involved, and past experiences. The majority of the participants indicated that their knowledge of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study did not influence their decision to participate in research. A major outcome of the conference was the formation of the Statewide Tuskegee Alliance Coalition. The planning coalition decided to continue their efforts to work with communities and promote cancer awareness among minorities. After the conference, the coalition conducted several meetings and in July 1998, 1 year after the conference, the coalition selected a chair, co-chair, and a formal name for the organized group. CONCLUSIONS: The planning, development, and implementation of this conference provided a valuable experience for researchers and community members. It was discovered that community involvement in the early phase of this project contributed to its success. Furthermore, the partnership that developed between researchers (academic institutions) and communities successfully provided an infrastructure that supported the interest of both groups.