A week after news broke that remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing were held at the Penn Museum, which embroiled the University in controversy and nationwide backlash, members of the Penn and West Philadelphia community are calling for the remains to be returned to the Africa family.
While the Penn Museum and University administrators have apologized for holding the remains, the Africa family and members of the West Philadelphia community demand further action.
History of 1985 MOVE bombing and discovery of remains
West Philadelphian Abdul-Aliy Muhammad wrote an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 21 that revealed the Penn Museum held remains from the 1985 MOVE bombing over a period of 36 years.
The remains were previously in the custody of now-retired professor Alan Mann, who received the remains from the city in the 1980s after the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office asked for assistance in identifying them. Mann later studied the remains with Janet Monge, curator of the Penn Museum's physical anthropology section, Billy Penn previously reported, before taking them with him to Princeton University. The remains, a pelvic bone and a femur, were transferred back and forth from Penn to Princeton for over 35 years.
Philadelphia Department of Public Health Director of Communications James Garrow wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian on April 27 that the Medical Examiner Office’s policy is to release remains to next-of-kin, but declined to comment on the remains from the MOVE bombing due to an ongoing investigation.
A forensic anthropologist hired by the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Committee identified some remains as belonging to a 12-year-old victim known as Delisha, and a 14-year-old victim known as Tree. Whereabouts of the remains are currently unclear, but Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods, who assumed his position as director of the Penn Museum on April 1, has also told The New York Times that the remains were sent to Mann on April 18.
Mann has not responded to multiple recent requests for comment.
In 1985, the Philadelphia city government bombed a home on Osage Avenue that housed MOVE, a Black liberation advocacy group. The bombing had killed 11 people, including five children aged seven to 13, and destroyed 61 homes in the neighborhood, leaving 250 local residents without a home.
The remains were most recently displayed in an online instruction video for Coursera in a Princeton course series titled "Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology." In the video, Monge and an undergraduate student examine the remains and attempt to determine the age of the bones. The video has been removed from Coursera as of earlier this week and was suspended, according to an email sent by the University on April 28.
Responses from Penn Museum and the University
The Penn Museum issued a public apology to the Africa family on April 26 for its possession of the remains of at least one child killed in the bombing and their use of the remains for teaching and research practices. Following nationwide coverage and uproar, the Penn Museum and the University issued a second apology two days later to the Africa family and Penn community members in an email to all undergraduate students, in which they committed to a comprehensive review of its possession of the remains.
The University announced that it hired attorneys Joe Tucker and Carl Singley of the Tucker Law Group to investigate how the Penn Museum came in possession of the remains and how they were used. This report will be shared with the Penn community with the intention that "nothing of this nature is repeated in the future."
The Penn Museum also stated it is working on a resolution to return the remains, and promised to reassess its “practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains.” It will also review how human remains are used in teaching, and review the holdings and collection practices of its physical anthropology section. Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett previously released a statement on Monday afternoon calling the obtainment of these remains “insensitive, unprofessional, and unacceptable."
During a news conference on Monday, however, MOVE rejected the Penn Museum’s apology. The group criticized the apology for its lateness in addressing the issue, the Inquirer reported.
Other members of the Penn community, like Anthropology Department Chair Kathleen D. Morrison, similarly spoke out against the Penn Museum’s holding of the remains. In an email to Anthropology students, faculty, and staff on April 23, Morrison pledged to develop a more comprehensive framework for using human remains in teaching instead of the “minimal” guide currently provided by the Penn Museum. Morrison also wrote the Anthropology Department is creating a content warning system to alert students if classes involve the handling of human remains.
“Our consideration will include not only legal concerns, such as the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which protects the individually identifiable health information about a decedent for 50 years following the date of death of the individual, the histories of acquisition, and the role of informed consent, but also ethical concerns of care, avoidance of harm, and sensitivity for cultural differences,” the email read.
The Department of Africana Studies released a statement Tuesday denouncing Penn's holding of the remains, which Billy Penn reported were at one point stored in a cardboard box. The department called for the University to perform a deeper investigation into the MOVE remains, as well as the rest of the museum's holdings.
"At this time of deep turmoil and reckoning over structural racism in America, we expect the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania do more than simply appoint two members to investigate the use of these remains," said Eve M. Troutt Powell, History and Africana Studies professor. "A complete inventory and physical accounting of these and other remains and collections held by the Museum is long overdue."
Criticism from Penn students and West Philadelphia community
More than 300 West Philadelphia and Penn community members gathered outside the Penn Museum Wednesday evening to demand the immediate return of the remains and honor the lives of Tree and Delisha Africa, whose remains the Africa family believes were held by the Museum.
More than 7,370 people have also signed a petition created by the Africa family also calling for the return of the remains and those of Delisha Africa and Tree Africa. The petition also demands financial reparations to the MOVE family and the creation of a transparent, public investigation led by a MOVE-approved investigator and funded by Penn and Princeton.
Graduate School of Education professor and Black Lives Matter Philadelphia organizer Krystal Strong affirmed the demands of the MOVE family, and urged members of the Penn community to stand in solidarity with MOVE.
“It’s time for us who are members of Penn to listen to the MOVE family to follow their lead and to support them in how they determine what justice looks like,” Strong said.
After Muhammad wrote their op-ed, they told the DP that the Museum's possession of Black Philadelphian bodies is perpetuating the University's cycle of abuse with its surrounding community.
“It’s an atrocity that for over 35 years the Museum at Penn — and it seems like Princeton — have been trafficking in the remains of the MOVE bombing victim, or victims,” Muhammad told the DP. “[Penn is] complicit in the harm that befell the MOVE people. It’s complicit in the harm that befell the Black residents of West Philadelphia. It’s complicit in the harm that was levied against two Black children, 14 and 12 years old."
Philadelphia Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier wrote in an April 24 email to the DP that she felt sickened to hear that Penn has been in possession of the remains, adding that this incident reopens conversations surrounding distrust between Penn and Black West Philadelphia communities.
“The University of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia owe the Africa family and the West Philadelphia community a full explanation of what happened here. Additionally, the university must make meaningful efforts towards reconciliation,” Gauthier wrote. “It’s long past time that Penn as an institution conducts an honest accounting of their treatment of, and impact on, Black and brown neighborhoods — and that they work to make things right.”
School of Arts and Sciences Ph.D. second year and member of the Penn & Slavery Project VanJessica Gladney said she was shocked to learn that the remains were in Penn’s possession, and especially that they were used in online instruction videos. She believes the remains must be returned expeditiously to the Africa family.
“Once again, we see the remains of Black Philadelphians used as a teaching tool, when it’s an actual person — and that person should have been honored,” Gladney said. “[Is Penn] prioritizing truth and moral good, and giving the remains of someone to a proper burial and to their families? Or is it all just prestige?”
Professor of Religious and Africana Studies Anthea Butler posted a series of tweets on April 21 denouncing the use of the remains as objects to study rather than actual people who once lived. Butler declined a request for comment.
Police Free Penn has joined other groups in leveling criticism against the University and the Penn Museum for its possession of the remains. The group has publicly voiced its support for the Africa family on social media, and last week, Police Free Penn initiated an email campaign to demand the immediate return of the remains to the Africa family.
Graduate School of Education Ph.D. candidate Christopher Rogers, who is a member of Police Free Penn, criticized Penn for its performative commitment to racial equity, pointing to an email sent by top administrators to the University community during jury deliberations on the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who was found guilty for the police killing of George Floyd.
“I’ve been getting email after email of [Penn] telling me they care, and then when we actually have a real moment to address the real and deep substantive work of doing racial justice, they’re evasive,” Rogers said.
In a Daily Princetonian op-ed, 70 faculty members denounced the possession of the remains by both Penn and Princeton, as well as their use by Monge in the Coursera video.
“It is simply not enough to assert, as has a University spokesperson, that nothing 'improper is currently taking place at Princeton,'" the op-ed reads. "The victims of the MOVE bombing, their families, and those of us at Princeton invested in Black history and communities deserve more.”
Reparations and restitution of the remains
For some members of the local community, Penn's possession of the MOVE bombing remains and the Morton Collection, which holds the skulls of 14 Black Philadelphians whose remains were robbed from their graves in the 19th century, prompts conversations about reparations. While the University has issued apologies and plans to repatriate the Morton Collection and return the MOVE remains to the Africa family, MOVE and their allies hope to see immediate restitution.
“We were just at Penn a week ago to demand the sacred return of the crania of 14 Black Philadelphians, and now we find out that they also have the remains of MOVE bombing victims —young Black children — in their possessions,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad said the actions that should be taken are simple: The University must return the remains to the Africa family, as well as pay them reparations, which the Africa family demands as well.
“There won’t ever be enough repair to deal with what they did, but they have to make financial restitution to the family of Tree and Delisha Africa,” they said.
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