Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society
Response to Retention and Use of MOVE Bombing Victims’ Remains by the Penn Museum
We, members of The Program on Race, Science, and Society (PRSS) at the University of Pennsylvania, were horrified at the revelations that the remains of child victims of the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the Black liberation community MOVE, believed to be Delisha and Katricia “Tree” Africa, were unethically retained and handled by the Penn Museum without the consent of their living family members.
The children’s remains were inhumanely desecrated by shuffling them between the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University and using them for research and teaching. Neither university has been able to confirm the current location of the remains. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Africa family, MOVE members, and all those who have been personally affected by this ordeal as they not only experience the trauma of the bombing 36 years ago but are now being traumatized again by these latest revelations.
The mishandling of the remains is indefensible and rooted in a legacy of dehumanization and violence against Black people. The murder of 11 people, including 5 children, at the hands of the Philadelphia Police and Fire Department, itself was an appalling act of violence—one that remains in the consciousness of West Philadelphia community members. The handling of the remains recovered from the MOVE house follows a long history of dehumanizing and unethical use of Black people’s bodies for academic research and pedagogy, even as Black people have rarely benefitted from resulting medical advances. This history spans multiple centuries, from the African American man whose body was the first to be dissected at the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School in 1762; to the forced experimental surgeries performed by J. Marion Sims on enslaved women, Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, to perfect his gynecological techniques; to Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cells were collected at Johns Hopkins University and used for clinical research around the globe; to the United States Public Health Service’s Study of Syphilis in the Negro Male, which deceived hundreds of Black participants, deliberately withholding available treatment for the fatal disease; to Penn Professor Albert Kligman’s use of incarcerated Black men for dermatological research at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison. The Penn Museum only recently announced it will begin efforts to repatriate the crania collected by Samuel Morton, including those of enslaved people, for his racist research. It is time that the exploitation of human bodies for experimentation, research, and pedagogy, living or dead, cease, and that this multi-century legacy be meaningfully examined and redressed.
Penn has announced steps to atone for the harm it caused to the Africa family by issuing an apology, reaching out to the Africa family, and launching an investigation. More is required. Penn must commit to a full and thorough investigation of the possession, handling, and use of these remains after the City of Philadelphia formally concluded its investigation of the MOVE bombing in 1986. The investigation should identify how and why those people handling the remains disregarded the humanity of the Africa children, as well as ignoring informed consent, the proper chain of custody, and other ethical requirements. The investigation should result in recommendations, following anti-racist protocols developed by biological anthropologists and bioarcheologists in collaboration with Black and Indigenous communities, to prevent such unethical and dehumanizing conduct in the future. The recommendations should include best practices to ensure that all human remains (accessioned or otherwise) be used and maintained only in the most ethical, just, and respectful manner with the informed consent of all relevant parties. Penn must hold accountable its employees who allowed the retention and misuse of the remains for so long. Finally, Penn should extend its investigation to a full inventory and accounting of other remains it holds and act to redress any unethical and inhumane uses it uncovers.
The Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society stands in support of and solidarity with the Africa family of MOVE. Their petition can be found here.
The University of Pennsylvania Program on Race, Science, and Society
Professor Dorothy E. Roberts, J.D., Director
Ezelle Sanford III, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow
Paul Wolff Mitchell, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Student Fellow
Hafeeza Anchrum, Ph.D. Candidate, Incoming Postdoctoral Fellow
Michael Yudell, Ph.D., M.PH., Professor, Drexel University
Raka Sen, Graduate Student, University of Pennsylvania
Sebastián Gil-Riaño, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Pennsylvania
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