Demand the repatriation of human remains.

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Last week, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad published an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer outlining some disturbing news: Penn Museum and Princeton University has been holding the remains of two children killed in the MOVE bombing of 1985 hostage for 36 years – without the consent or consideration of their family.

The MOVE bombing occurred in 1985 when the Philadelphia Police Department bombed a residential home belonging to a member of MOVE, a Black radical group. The attack started with an armed standoff, where police officers spent over ten thousand rounds of ammunition. When the residents did not exit the home, police dropped a bomb on the premises. The resulting fire killed six MOVE members and five of their children and destroyed 65 houses in the neighborhood – fires that were left to spread intentionally by law enforcement (Blackpast).

The sheer lack of respect for the victims of this bombing was evident 36 years ago. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad notes that many of the bodies decomposed in a city morgue for six months after the incident, instead of being returned to family members. And Penn Museum and Princeton University are both guilty of the same carelessness and lack of accountability. The remains that passed between the two institutions are of Tree Africa and Delisha Africa, who were 14 and 13 years old, respectively, when they died. These remains were even featured in a Princeton University’s online course, where a professor can be seen handling and examining a badly burned femur and pelvic bone. 

In a public press conference held by the victims’ families, the pain and heartbreak that they’ve experienced is visceral. They discuss not just the state-sanctioned violence they’ve experienced since the bombing in 1985, but the horror of learning about their remains.

Those remains are not my sister, Tree Tree. My sister Tree Tree was flesh and blood. I’ll never have her back…They can’t give me back my sisters, my brothers. They can’t repair what they have done. There are no demands that they can meet to rectify this situation. Nothing.

Janine Africa, at the MOVE Family Press Conference

This wasn’t even the first time that Penn has been careless with remains. In 2020, the museum announced that it would remove its Morton Cranial Collection from view (Penn Museum). The collection included hundreds of skulls, many proven to be from enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and Cubans (The Daily Pennsylvanian). The skulls were collected by Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century, University of Pennsylvania-educated man who believed in the pseudoscience of phrenology – that some races are inferior to others based on the size of their brains (Hyperallergic). Phrenology is not just scientifically inaccurate. It offered a “scientific” rationale for the systemic oppression of people from marginalized races and ethnicities (Vassar) and laid the foundation for 20th-century eugenics. 

Advocates demand that Penn Museum begin the process of repatriation of all its contents. Although a committee has been created, these steps have yet to be taken as of April 2021 (Penn Museum). But when you read much of the press surrounding the latest allegations, many articles center their apology and intentions rather than the demands of the family harmed.

These issues aren’t unique to Penn, though. Museums worldwide hold human remains, including skulls, skeletons, bone fragments, and even preserved heads – both on display and in storage. The practice is rooted in colonization; throughout the 19th century, European settlers would “collect” body parts of non-European communities, either as keepsakes or for “scientific purposes,” akin to the phrenological purposes noted above. These remains were often taken forcefully, without consent, and disregarding the cultural and spiritual practices of honoring the remains of the dead. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa estimates that the preserved tattooed heads of at least 600 known Māori and Moriori ancestors are located in European museums. Over the past decade, they’ve been able to repatriate at least 500 other remains back – a time-intensive and costly process that the source communities are responsible for (Artnet).

Although museums in the U.S. have human remains of Indigenous communities from around the world, they hold far more remains of Indigenous communities who stewarded the lands now referred to as North America. They also host remains of enslaved African American people. Earlier this year, Harvard University announced that amidst its collection of 22,000 human remains, at least 15 were the remains of enslaved African people. They issued an apology and committed to creating a committee for properly addressing these remains (Harvard). The Smithsonian Institution houses the nation’s most extensive collection of human remains, many of which are located at the National Museum of Natural History. They, too, are expected to make a statement on their role of holding African American remains (NYTimes).

Although repatriation is a clear path to address these wrongdoings, it’s not straightforward for African American remains. Many remains were collected without information about where they came from and who those people were. In addition, it can be challenging to trace lineage to present-day descendants. Beyond that – where do the remains belong? Laid to rest here in the United States or sent back to their country of origin? And who has the power to make that decision if no descendants can be identified? But practices can follow the process of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Enacted in 1990, the law requires institutions that receive federal funding to consult with the Indigenous communities where the remains are from to repatriate them publicly (NPS).  No similar law exists for African American enslaved people – yet.

But there is a clear and direct way to address the harm inflicted on the Africa family. Today, take a moment to complete the action items above. And, more broadly, stay engaged in the unfolding conversations on remains housed in public institutions. Notice how artifacts were gathered and whether or not they’re displayed in partnership with the Indigenous communities they represent. And rally for the repatriation of those remains whenever called for by their families.

Key Takeaways

  • Penn Museum and Princeton University has been holding the remains of two children killed in the MOVE bombing of 1985 hostage for 36 years – without the consent or consideration of their family.

  • Across the world, museums hold the remains of marginalized communities, often without the consent or consideration of the communities they come from.

  • Public institutions deserve to be held responsible for the harm they inflict with storing and/or displaying the remains of people without consent.

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