Last week Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania both released apologies for their “insensitive, unprofessional and unacceptable” treatment of the bones belonging to an unidentified African American child who had perished in the flames of the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia in 1985. The apology refers to the use of charred remains of the child’s pelvis and femora in an online anthropology course entitled Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology offered by Princeton University. The story was reported in an article in Billypenn, and also discussed in a Philadelphia Inquirer Op-ed, both published on April 21, 2021. The apology came only weeks after the release of a report that outlines a shift in the policy at the Penn Museum to repatriate African American remains from the infamous Morton collection. While the ethical challenges of the Morton collection (which was built and used to support a polygenist racist ideology) was well known, the debate about it reached a tipping point in the summer of 2020, as the world was protesting structural racism and the police violence that had killed George Floyd. The new direction taken by the museum signalled a desire to build better relationships with the local African American community and make amends for its problematic heritage. In the light of these progressive steps, the story about the bones from the MOVE bombings was shocking, and it seems to indicate just how much work the scientific community still has left to do.
In the 1980s, The Philadelphia Police Department was engaged in a lingering conflict with the revolutionary black military separatist group MOVE, who lived in a communal row house on Osage Ave in West Philadelphia. On May 13th, 1985, a final and violent standoff ended with the police dropping a bomb on the house. 11 people died in the ensuing fire. Five of them were children. The Philadelphia Fire Department deliberately held back their response, and as a consequence the fire spread to engulf two city blocks, and over 60 homes were completely destroyed. Pictures from the blast reveal what looks like a war zone, and the attack has left a deep wound in Philadelphia’s African American community. In 2021, 36 years later, bones recovered from the MOVE house, and suspected to be those of 14 year old Katricia “Tree” Africa, resurface in an online anthropology class at Princeton. How is that possible?
When examining the chain of custody of the remains, several things stand out as problematic. The bones arrived to Penn already in 1985 when the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked anthropologists there to assist in their identification. The Medical Examiner’s Office wanted to know if the bones, recovered from the burned out MOVE house, could be the remains of Katricia Africa. The analysis was inconclusive. So far so good. It is common to seek out specialists for analysis, and it can be viewed as a service to the community at large. It is also to be expected that some specialist analyses are inconclusive. It is what happens next, or rather what does not happen, that is strange. The remains were never returned to the Medical Examiner’s Office once the analysis was terminated, but remained in the museum. Museums are often custodians of human remains from archaeological and historical contexts, some of them admittedly controversial or problematic. This is a well known and complex issue. Museums have a responsibility to curate and make these collections available for researchers and to the public, and many of them are currently grappling with the ethical considerations this responsibility entails. However, it is very unusual that contemporary specimens are incorporated into such collections, and certainly not without the explicit consent of the donor or their descendants. It is not the museums’ responsibility to accept to curate remains from local law enforcement, and usually, unidentified remains are cremated. Is it possible that the bones from the MOVE house were simply forgotten? Did they get lost in the chain of custody? Is this a case of neglect and poor procedure? Beyond questions of responsibility and professionalism, we must also ask how is it possible that the remains were not viewed as deeply problematic at the time? Even if it may have been difficult to locate surviving relatives, it is especially hard to understand how the anthropologists working in a museum in a city recovering from such a traumatic event did not make the connection between the remains and the needs of the community. That is troubling.
Then, somewhere along the way, things get even more complicated: the location of the bones becomes unclear. In her article in Billypenn, Maya Kassutto writes:
“For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.“
Could it be that a researcher simply took the remains from one place of employment to another? Here, it is difficult to shake the feeling that these practices are not very different from those of anthropologists in the 19th century who viewed scientific collections as their private property.
“Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse wasn’t sure of the remains’ current location. Reached by phone, she said they might be in a lab run by Alan Mann, the now-retired professor who had been studying them with Janet Monge, curator of Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section.”
A lot has happened in the 36 years that have passed. Ethical standards, recommendations, and experiences with different perspectives have pushed anthropology to examine itself and develop more ethical practices and attitudes. Seen in that light, it is even more surprising that the remains of this unidentified child, violently killed by the police in Philadelphia in 1985, could be used in an online course that, according to its description, explicitly focuses on lost personhood (cases where remains cannot be identified due to their condition). What is so striking about this is the combination of a choice of words such as personhood, which signals an awareness of contemporary anthropological research questions and sensibilities, with such a casual neglect for the lived life of the human being that is represented by those very remains. It is difficult to imagine a case that more clearly, not only objectifies, but even dehumanises the remains of a child.
Ruth Benedict famously stated: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” With those words in mind, it is discouraging to realise that anthropology still so often remains incapable of reforming itself from within and leading the charge against racism and structural violence, but instead only reacts to external pressure when the public lifts up the curtain to expose our dirty laundry. This must prompt us to take action and examine our practices and ethics at every juncture. It is not certain that the discipline will survive many more of these omissions, missteps and scandals.
You see, the thing about real bones is that they once were living people. If we want to continue to have the privilege of studying them, we must learn to respect them and those who care about them.
Photo credit banner: “Community dedicates plaque of MOVE bombing” by joepiette2 is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/