More than 300 West Philadelphia and Penn community members gathered outside the Penn Museum on April 28 to demand the immediate return of the remains of victims killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing and to honor the lives of Tree and Delisha Africa, whose remains the Africa family believes were held by the Museum.
The protest was organized by Black liberation advocacy group MOVE, in collaboration with Black Lives Matter Philadelphia, following the discovery that the Penn Museum stored the remains of at least one child killed in the bombing, which killed 11 people, including five children. The protest was held just hours after Penn issued its second apology to the Africa family and Penn community members for housing the remains and committed to returning them to the Africa family as soon as possible.
A forensic anthropologist hired by the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Committee identified some remains as belonging to a 12-year-old victim named Delisha, and a 14-year-old victim named Tree. Now-retired Penn professor Alan Mann obtained the remains from the city in 1985 as part of an investigation to identify them, and later studied the remains with Janet Monge, curator of the Penn Museum's physical anthropology section, BillyPenn reported, before taking them with him to Princeton University. The remains were transferred back and forth between Penn and Princeton for more than 35 years.
The remains were most recently displayed in an instruction video for Coursera in an online Princeton course series titled "Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology," in which Monge and an undergraduate student examine the remains and attempt to determine the age of the bones.
The protest began outside the Penn Museum and made its way to Penn President Amy Gutmann’s home on 3812 Walnut St., with people calling for justice for Tree and Delisha Africa.
“As we seek justice for this specific tragedy, we remain grounded in the reality that this would not be possible without the first tragedy: the bombing of MOVE headquarters,” Penn Graduate School of Education assistant professor Krystal Strong said at the protest.
On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a satchel bomb on a West Philadelphia rowhouse occupied by members of the MOVE organization. The bombing followed years of tension between the organization and the city, including a 15-month standoff following then-Mayor Frank Rizzo's order for the group to move from their home, which led to a shootout that ended in the death of a police officer for which nine MOVE members were convicted and given life sentences.
In addition to returning the remains, protesters demanded an investigation into Penn and Princeton’s possession of the remains, the firing of Anthropology professor and curator of the Museum's physical anthropology section Janet Monge, and a formal apology directly to, and reparations for, the Africa family.
Penn issued an initial apology on April 26 before issuing a second two days later. The Museum stated it will reassess its “practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains." Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett also announced that the University hired attorneys from the Tucker Law Group to investigate how the Penn Museum came in possession of the remains.
Strong criticized Penn's apologies for not being addressed directly to the Africa family. She said they were not aware of the statements until they saw media publications regarding it.
“I’m not trying to hear about your apology from someone else,” Strong said at the protest.
Philadelphia Councilmember and Penn alumna Jamie Gauthier, whose district includes Penn and Osage Avenue, said she felt sickened and enraged to learn that Penn held these remains.
“There is no possible justification for this barbaric disrespect of Black lives,” Gauthier said. “These are the remains of children who died at the hands of the state, and even in death didn’t receive even a modicum of respect or dignity. It’s disgusting.”
Gauthier demanded an explanation on behalf of the Africa family from Penn and the City of Philadelphia regarding why the remains were not given to the Africa family directly and instead were used for research and teaching practices.
“Saying it won’t happen again is not enough. The damage is already done, and now everyone involved needs to be held accountable for their actions,” Gauthier said. “The fact that academics used these bones to further their own research dehumanizes the victims of this tragedy, and it resurfaces a long and fraught history of experimentation on Black people’s bodies.”
“When I think about what has happened — what these people have done to them — it is unfathomable,” Africa Jr. said.
Black Lives Matter Philadelphia organizer YahNé Ndgo also spoke at the protest, denouncing Penn for its treatment of the remains, which included keeping them in a cardboard box.
“These were real people — people who had dreams and aspirations, whose lives were taken senselessly, thoughtlessly,” she said. “They should have been able to rest in peace and power.”
Outside Gutmann’s house, Africa Jr. shared memories of Tree and Delisha Africa, including how Tree Africa loved climbing the tallest trees. He called Delisha Africa a small but fearless leader of the MOVE children.
Strong emphasized the importance of honoring the lives of Tree and Delisha Africa by remembering their names.
“As much as this is about justice for Delisha and Tree and the entire MOVE family, this is also about remembering that it is not bones and remains that [are] why we are here today,” Strong said. “It is because those bones and remains were once flesh and blood. They were the beautiful lives of Black girls — Black children who should have been able to grow old, who should have been able to live full lives.”