History

The Grim Open Secret of College Bone Collections

How did the remains of Black children killed by police end up in a Princeton course?

People march in the road past row houses holding signs in support of MOVE
Supporters of MOVE conduct an anniversary march through the Osage Street neighborhood in Philadelphia on May 13, 1986, one year to the day after police bombed a MOVE house, destroying 61 homes and killing 11 MOVE members. Bettmann via Getty Times

In a 2019 video tutorial produced by Princeton, students watched the smiling white anthropologist Janet Monge and a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate hold a human pelvic bone and a femur up to the camera as rows of human skulls, backlit and neatly lined up in wooden cabinets, rested behind them. The bones the two held, transferred between universities over decades, likely belong to Delisha Africa and Katricia “Tree” Africa, two Black children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing, in which the city of Philadelphia dropped a satchel bomb on a row house occupied by the Black liberation group after a police standoff. Released soon after the bombing to a professor at the University of Pennsylvania for forensic study, the remains will finally be collected from that professor’s home on Friday. How they ended up there, and where they’ve been in between, is something the institutions involved have struggled to explain.

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The potential source of the remains and their place in the online course were brought to light last week by reports in Philadelphia news outlets Billy Penn and the Inquirer. The subsequent uproar has rocked the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. But while the revelation was a shock to the public, to many in the anthropology world, it was no surprise at all. Museums and universities’ brutal habit of collecting human remains without family consent, proper identification, or public knowledge is far from a relic of the 19th century.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (or the Penn Museum for short) itself is home to more than 1,000 skulls and other body parts collected over more than a century and held within its controversial Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection. The museum had already committed to repatriating skulls after decades of protests from the surrounding community and reports by commissions and university committees. From the 1830s to 1840s, Morton, a physician and anatomist often referred to as the founder of the “American school of ethnology,” collected the skulls from around the world, compiling his craniometric research into a racial hierarchy that argued for “polygenism”—the idea that different races constituted different species and had different origins. His work was often used to justify slavery and racial subjugation.

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Of the more than half-million recorded human remains held in collections across the United States, tens of thousands of them are at universities, and not all were collected in what some consider the “bad old days” of the 19th century. Earlier this year, Harvard announced it would convene a committee to investigate the history of more than 22,000 human remains distributed across its museums to assess future ethical stewardship. (Still, the university continues to fight some claims on its collection, including from descendants of enslaved people.) Yale’s Cushing Center holds more recent remains, including more than 2,000 human brains collected by neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing through the 1930s, many of them taken from his former patients, some of whose families actively denied consent for autopsies and dissection. Other universities seem to have little idea of the scope or scale of their human collections, often scattered across anthropology labs and in storage rooms of medical schools rather than in temperature-controlled museum cabinets.

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While this recently uncovered case is not unique, it is instructive. At 5:30 a.m. on May 13, 1985, 500 members of the Philadelphia Police Department descended on MOVE’s row house after long-standing tensions with the Black liberation group. After a standoff in the early hours of the morning, police officers fired more than 10,000 rounds of bullets and tear gas canisters into the house, trapping seven adults and six children inside. Twelve hours later, police dropped two bombs on the house, and the Philadelphia Fire Department let the ensuing fire burn. By the end of the night, more than 60 homes in the predominantly Black West Philadelphia neighborhood burned to the ground, and all but two people there—including five children—died. In November of last year, the mayor finally issued a formal apology for the violent attack against the city’s citizens, although family members and local residents had been awarded millions in damages soon after the bombing.

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Here’s what we know about what happened to the remains of the victims of the bombing, from May 1985 to the present. Soon after the bombing, the remains were sent to the Philadelphia medical examiner to be analyzed by the MOVE Special Investigation Commission, appointed by then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode in response to outcry from across the city. While forensic anthropologist Ali Hameli, who was Delaware’s chief medical examiner and was acting as the MOVE commission’s pathologist, identified the pelvic bone and femur fragment as belonging to Delisha and Tree Africa, Penn professor Alan Mann was called in to consult on the case. Assisted by then–graduate student Janet Monge, Mann, who initially disagreed with Hameli’s identification, took custody of the remains—despite legal strictures requiring consent from next of kin—moving them in a cardboard box to Penn and then to his new job in the anthropology department at Princeton in 2001.

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Ten years later, promoted to keeper and associate curator of physical anthropology at the Penn Museum, Monge reexamined the bone fragments, further questioning the victims’ identities based on discrepancies in age. Monge later used the remains as pedagogical tools in her since-suspended 2019 online Coursera class at Princeton, which reached more than 5,000 viewers. In the video, Monge disagrees with the undergraduate student about the identities of the people whose remains she’s handling. Monge titled sections of her hands-on tutorial “Losing Personhood” and “Restoring Personhood.” At some point in the last two years, the New York Times reported, the remains were returned to Mann, now an emeritus professor at Penn and Princeton, who has since been unavailable for comment.

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While some anthropologists, including Princeton’s Carolyn Rouse, have argued that physical and forensic anthropology simply cannot be taught without the use of human remains, questions of where and how those remains have been obtained, and whether their use in research includes consent from families, have often been given little consideration—and have even provoked outright hostility and racism. At the very least, the physical anthropology departments like the ones that employ Mann and Monge exist today as uneasy reminders of many museums’ and universities’ racist and colonial foundations. While institutions are quick to dismiss such racist collecting practices as an unfortunate inherited legacy of 19th century colonialism, human bodies were collected well into the 20th century, often under dubious circumstances. Samuel Redman, a historian and author of Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums, told me in an interview that he was shocked by “the fact that so many individuals were inspired by earlier 19th century collectors and continued to gather bodies well into the 20th century.” Museums with reputations for holding remains became repositories for missionaries, army medical officers, and other amateur bone collectors, who sometimes gathered remains tilled up during farming or construction projects.

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Despite physical anthropologists’ attempts at distancing themselves from their 19th century forebears like Samuel Morton by emphasizing their finds’ archaeological value, Redman found, 20th century museums still functioned—and continue to function—as sites where human remains are transformed into “specimens” by elite academics. This situation persists even as institutions increasingly turn, at least in their public-facing comments, toward claims that they’re examining their legacies through repatriation of remains. While such recently collected bodies as the MOVE bombing remains are somewhat unusual within museum collections, in 2004, allegations emerged that the wildly popular traveling Body Worlds exhibition, which reached nearly 14 million viewers, contained several corpses of people in Chinese prison camps who had died in 2001. The bodies were returned to China for burial.

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In the Princeton video, Monge says, when asked how she knows that the remains “are the bones of a recently deceased individual,” that “the bones are juicy” and that they “smell kind of greasy,” comments that have drawn particular disgust. Ezelle Sanford III, a historian of medicine and postdoctoral fellow in the Penn Program on Race, Science and Society, which deals directly with the university’s legacy of scientific racism on campus, called Monge’s words just “the most recent example of an ongoing legacy of Black people’s bodies used for academic research and pedagogy.” Sanford studies centuries of scientific racism within elite institutions, from J. Marion Sims’ gynecological experiments on enslaved women in the 19th century to the harvesting of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 and Penn professor Albert Kligman’s use of imprisoned men at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison for dermatological research from the 1950s to the 1970s. He argues that Black and disabled people continue to be made into specimens and robbed of individual identities.

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Although tracing human remains can be a difficult process—a direct result of the lack of humanity assigned to people deemed “specimens” by white collectors over centuries—some museums have successfully identified and repatriated bodies, allowing for their respectful reburial by ancestors or descendant communities. There is recent precedent for this. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act led to the reburial of thousands of Indigenous remains and burial objects across North America, many of them dug up and stolen during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2003, for instance, Chicago’s Field Museum repatriated 150 remains of Haida Gwaii ancestors stolen from burial sites in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands. This action launched further legal battles for the Haida, who sought to repatriate and rebury hundreds more remains from museums like the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. Their fight is not over.

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Focused on Indigenous Americans, NAGPRA does not govern the repatriation of the thousands of Black remains held by museums and universities across the United States, nor does it cover the remains of disabled, poor, or “criminal” remains collected by physicians, anthropologists, and other scientists throughout the 20th century. Some institutions, like the controversial Mütter Museum, located just across the Schuylkill River from the Penn Museum, have been hesitant to entertain calls for repatriation, claiming that their collections are necessary for ongoing scientific research, even while profiting from their sensational display. Even more disturbingly, outside of the institutional world of museums, skulls and other human remains are still sold in private auctions, often lacking provenance information, turned into unnamed commodities for individual purchase.

The human remains held in a cardboard box for decades, though, belonged to individuals with families, friends, and surviving loved ones. Speaking to the New York Times, activist and MOVE member Mike Africa Jr., who was 6 years old at the time of the bombing and remembers Delisha and Tree, expressed feelings of “anger, fury, disappointment, sadness” about the nonconsensual use of what may be his friends’ body parts in a video that circulated to over 5,000 students online. “It’s like this never ends and no matter how much time passes, and you hope that things can get to a place where you can begin to heal some,” he said, “it’s right back up in your face.”

MOVE has issued a series of demands. Following protests at Princeton and the Penn Museum, both universities have apologized for the mishandling of the girls’ remains and committed to launching investigations into how the bones were violated and lost. Princeton’s anthropology department went further, acknowledging its explicitly racist history and ties to slavery and eugenics. Monge’s Coursera class has been suspended, although it has been archived, and those registered for the course can still stream it.

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