This month, the Penn Museum’s committee to discuss the future of its Morton Collection of skulls — over 1,000 skulls gathered by 19th-century white supremacist Dr. Samuel George Morton or later added to the archive — is set for another meeting. Following a recent report by Paul Wolff Mitchell, a doctoral candidate at the university, it’s all the more clear the museum should move to repatriate the collection without delay.
Mitchell’s report indicates that some of the crania belong to Black Philadelphians and were torn from the burial grounds used by the Philadelphia Almshouse, Philadelphia Hospital, and Philadelphia General Hospital. It’s also likely some of the remains are of the formerly enslaved. Let’s be clear: These remains were not given to the University of Pennsylvania with consent from the families of the dead. Penn must give back the remains of those who suffered and were exploited while alive, and disturbed and disrespected in their death. It is angering to think that as the U.S. continues to quake from and reckon with the histories of racial oppression, there remain body parts snatched from places of rest to benefit institutions that are complicit in anti-Blackness today and historically tied to the legacy of enslavers.
As Mitchell writes, “that bodies of Black Philadelphians were often graverobbed for dissection and anatomical study in medical schools and private collections” — proving that enslavers and medical purveyors benefited from the trafficked dead. Black Philadelphians who were enslaved had their bodies violated, dissected, and used for the promulgation of Morton’s white supremacist theories positing that Black people are inherently inferior to white people.
Because the remains were treated without care and concern, many skulls in the Morton Collection cannot be identified. John Voorhees is the only Black person from Philadelphia who was identified by name, and his descendants should receive his remains if possible. The remains of the other individuals should be handed to appropriate local Black religious and spiritual leaders.
There is precedent for this in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law established to facilitate the respectful return of Indigenous “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.” This law has allowed for the repatriation of approximately 100 crania previously in Morton’s collection to Native American groups. We need to put pressure on national political leaders to create and enact a law to provide the same protections to the remains of enslaved Africans because the truth is that Penn’s Morton Collection is just the tip of the iceberg. Other institutions fed on the bodies of the dead. Harvard University’s president, for example, apologized this January for the finding that the school’s Peabody Museum holds the human remains of at least 15 individuals of African descent likely to have been alive during the time of slavery in the U.S.
Penn has responded to previous calls for change around the Morton Collection. I argued for repatriation in 2019 based on the knowledge that the collection included 51 skulls of enslaved people he had received from a plantation in Vedado, located in Havana, Cuba, and two skulls from people enslaved in the U.S. Then in the summer of 2020, the abolitionist group Police Free Penn called for repatriation, and a student researcher who was digitizing letters sent to Morton made the same call in an op-ed for the Daily Pennsylvanian. In July the museum moved the crania out of public display, and in August formed a committee to explore repatriation and reburial. But there is no set timeline for the return of the remains.
The university has also hired the museum’s first Black director, who starts in April. I worry that in this case, another Black leader is being hired to clean up the mess made by an institution with a history of racism. I still don’t trust an institution that has benefited from housing the collection of a racist accumulation of Black people’s remains, allowing them to be gawked at, to do right by the legacies of the people warehoused there. Consider that Penn still leaves the surrounding West Philadelphia communities, with many residents descended from the same legacy, to live in poverty and deal with increasing housing insecurity.
There has to be repair in the form of monies returned to Black people through reparations and other actions to address the complexity of the harm caused then and now. That includes abolishing the Morton Collection altogether and returning the skulls to appropriate communities that can give them an honorable end. It is past time for Penn to make a clear commitment with a timeline to hand over the remains. Give Black Philadelphians the bones of our beloved lost and stolen people. Let us pray for the sanctity of their souls and grieve their erased names and stories. We know how to honor our dead. Universities clearly do not.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad is an organizer and writer born and raised in West Philadelphia. @MxAbdulAliy