The scandal over the MOVE bombing victims’ remains is part of anthropology’s racist history
To understand how this happened, we must grapple with who has been experimented on
Thirty-six years after the MOVE bombings in West Philadelphia, a video on Princeton University’s online learning platform surfaced in April showing Janet Monge, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, handling the remains of two victims, Tree Africa and Delisha Africa, to teach students about forensic anthropology.
The MOVE family, which was founded in 1972 by John Africa, believed they had buried Tree and Delisha in 1985, but their remains were reportedly brought to the Penn Museum, and later to Princeton, by Alan Mann, now a retired professor in anthropology at both universities. As part of an investigation into the bombing, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office had asked Mann to confirm the identity of the remains. It appears they were stored at Penn Museum for decades afterward.
The MOVE families were not informed of any of these decisions. Speaking to Philadelphia news site Billy Penn, Princeton anthropology department chair Carolyn Rouse said she hadn’t known of the bones’ whereabouts but there wasn’t any malicious intent in the mishandling of the bones. “I’m very aware of the profoundness of the MOVE thing. But nobody has been asking about the MOVE remains,” she said. “There’s no conspiracy here. It’s just that this is now just becoming a thing.”
It’s not now becoming a thing. It’s right in line with the systematic desecration of African human remains in the discipline of anthropology. Cultural anthropologist Talal Asad pointed out in a 1991 essay that anthropology was invented as a response to colonialism, with the main goal of classifying “non-European humanity in ways that would be consistent with Europe’s story of triumph as ‘progress.’ ” Though both Princeton and Penn Museum have apologized for the mishandling of the remains, it is an undeniable fact that the field of anthropology has terrorized colonial subjects and their descendants for centuries.
In an essay in March for The Conversation, anthropologists Delande Justinvil and Chip Colwell point out that the collection of remains of Black people for “educational purposes” dates to 1763, when the bodies of enslaved people were used for the first anatomy lecture in the American colonies. This practice was further solidified by the work of Samuel George Morton, who is considered the founder of American physical anthropology. Morton dedicated his life to seeking scientific proof of racial differences through the collection of human remains of African people. It was through Morton’s influence that archeological institutions across the Global North embraced the objective of justifying the racial hierarchy through collecting human remains.
Prestige was, at one point in the history of anthropology, acquired through growing an institution’s collection of human remains, and these remains were mostly from marginalized populations. The objective of proving the racial hierarchy was eventually abandoned, but the collections continued to be used for teaching skeletal biology and testing scientific methods. As such, anthropology has a culture of refusing to put Black people’s remains to rest, solidifying the dehumanization of colonial subjects both in life and death.
“Ultimately, the remains of African American people, freed or enslaved, are in these collections because the captivity of their bodies, both living and deceased, was the very foundation of museums of medicine, anthropology, archaeology, natural history, and more,” wrote Justinvil and Colwell. “While some academic and cultural institutions have taken the initiative to confront their legacies with slavery – such as decolonization efforts to include more diverse perspectives and values – a national effort has yet to take shape.”
The handling of the remains of the two MOVE bombing victims is certainly not, as Rouse noted, a “conspiracy.” The reality is much worse. The theft of Tree’s and Delisha’s bones indicates that despite attempts to purge academia and anthropology of colonial logics, they are baked into the structure. It is clear that there is still a belief in the field of anthropology that the remains of Black people are scientific objects to be studied or stored away in boxes rather than laid to rest by their families.
Six adults and five children were killed during the infamous 1985 bombing on the Osage Avenue MOVE compound that housed a collective of Black separatists who regularly protested against police brutality and for animal rights. The police and city officials repeatedly violently harassed the group, and on May 13, 1985, in an operation with nearly 500 police officers, dropped bombs on the compound when MOVE members refused to leave their homes to be arrested. Though city lawmakers have previously apologized for burning the neighborhood to the ground, none of the officials in charge at the time faced consequences.
“I could not imagine, in my worst nightmare, that the government would drop a bomb on us and kill my brothers and sisters,” said Mike Africa Jr., a current member of MOVE, at a recent news conference held by the family. “And I could not have imagined 36 years later that they would be displaying parts of our family as if they’re some dinosaur relics that they dug up.”
The online Coursera class was removed after the video was revealed by Billy Penn and the children’s remains were finally handed over to a funeral home in Philadelphia. MOVE members have launched an online petition to demand financial reparations. Unfortunately, this reaction is symptomatic of the history of anthropology and its relationship with colonial subjects and, specifically, Black people.
Expressing rightful outrage in its petition, the MOVE family emphasized how the Penn Museum was continuing the racist violence that was perpetrated against the group. “The MOVE Family has been ceaselessly brutalized, criminalized and dehumanized by the Philadelphia Police Department, held as political prisoners, and murdered,” they wrote. “Now we see clearly that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have perpetuated this racist violence by defiling the remains of our children in the name of research.”
There is no avenue to truly right this wrong. In life, the MOVE family was criminalized and terrorized by the state for demanding a better world. In death, their bones were used as objects of colonial plunder at academic institutions. The debt is unpayable, but at the very least, the Penn Museum must respond to the demands for financial reparations from the MOVE family and honor the memories of Tree Africa and Delisha Africa as soon as possible.