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Controversy flares over how Penn and Princeton treated a MOVE bombing victim’s remains

New questions have emerged over how two universities treated the remains of one victim.

Inga Saffron / File Photograph

More than 35 years after 11 bodies were found in the rubble of the MOVE rowhome, new questions have emerged over how two universities treated the remains of one victim.

The remains, never conclusively identified, were turned over to a University of Pennsylvania professor by an official investigative commission for additional forensic examination shortly after the 1985 disaster on Osage Avenue. Ever since, the material has been shuttled back and forth between Penn and Princeton University.

The remains — a pelvic bone and part of a femur — were initially subjected to detailed analysis by Penn anthropology professor Alan Mann and kept at the Penn Museum.

Mann took the remains with him when he joined Princeton’s faculty in 2001, but returned them to the Penn Museum in 2016 so its experts could again seek to identify them using a new anthropology lab, a museum spokesperson said. No identity was determined.

In recent years, another Penn anthropologist, Janet Monge, has shown the remains in instructional videos offered online by Princeton. Most recently, the Coursera videos were available for viewing in classes that began this week. Monge, a curator at the Penn Museum, titled her class “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology” and spoke of a MOVE “case study.”

The remains were kept at the Penn Museum for the last five years. They were just returned to Professor Mann — on Saturday. The new director of the Penn Museum, Christopher Woods, ordered them returned after hearing concerns about them, the museum spokesperson said.

The museum said Woods declined to talk to The Inquirer. In a statement, the museum said no one had ever come forward to claim the remains. Without providing any details, it said it had made several failed attempts to contact MOVE about them.

The decades of custody of the remains was brought to light in an op/ed article published online Wednesday by the Inquirer and written by freelancer and activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad. Muhammad has also advocated for the Penn Museum’s swift repatriation of the skull collection gathered by 19th Century white supremacist Samuel George Morton.

In the Wednesday piece, Muhammad calls for the Penn Museum to apologize and give “restitution to the MOVE family for this egregious act.” Local news outlet Billy Penn also posted an article Wednesday about the matter.

City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose West Philadelphia district includes the area of the MOVE bombing, said she learned about the remains recently from Mike Africa Jr., a son of MOVE members. She said she had complained on Tuesday to a Penn official.

“I was in disbelief that Penn as an institution would have so little regard for Black life that they would treat a little girl who was already killed by our government as property, as someone to be studied,” Gauthier said Wednesday.

Mike Africa Jr. declined through an intermediary to talk to a reporter for this story.

The new focus on the remains follows the Penn Museum’s apology earlier this month for its “unethical possession of human remains” it held as part of the 1,000-skull Morton collection.

Woods, who started April 1 as the museum’s director, said then that it would seek to rebury the skulls and other remains.

“It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible,” he said, “as a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”

In the MOVE bombing on May 13, 1985, police laid siege to the group’s fortified house after neighbors complained of harassment by the organization. After a gun battle, police dropped a bomb on the home to dislodge a rooftop bunker.

The city let the resultant fire burn to destroy the bunker after the fire commissioner promised his firefighters could get the blaze under control. The commissioner was wrong. The fire spread and destroyed MOVE’s building and 60 other houses. The badly-burned bodies of six MOVE members and five of their children were found in the group’s basement.

A medical examiner hired by a special commission set up by the city to investigate the disaster bought in Mann to examine the bones of one victim. But the pathologist and Mann ended up sharply disagreeing.

Dr. Ali Hameli, who had previously won attention for identifying the remains of Nazi war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele, said the remains were those of a 14-year-old girl, Katricia Dotson, who is called Tree Africa by MOVE members. However, Mann said they were those of a young adult woman, raising the unsettling possibility of a 12th victim of the tragedy.

Katricia and her younger sister, Zanetta, 13, were the oldest children to die that day. Their mother is MOVE member Consuewella Dotson Africa. Dotson was in prison during the 1985 bombing, one of nine MOVE members serving a 30-year term for third-degree murder in the 1978 death of Police Officer James Ramp. Dotson, who has since been released, could not be reached for comment.

Mann, 81, now a professor emeritus at both Princeton and Penn, could not be reached for comment. He did not return messages seeking comment from the Inquirer, relayed to him by the chair of the Princeton anthropology department and by a former relative. Monge, who has also worked as an adjunct professor at Princeton, didn’t reply to a similar message.

Michael Hotchkiss, a spokesperson for Princeton, would only say “no remains of the victims of the MOVE bombing are being housed at Princeton University.” Asked if that meant retired professor Mann had the remains, Hotchkiss said he could add nothing to the statement.

In an interview Wednesday, Carolyn Rouse, the chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, said her colleagues had acted properly.

“This is no controversy. This is a problem to be solved,” she said. “There’s no racism. This was a forensic investigation and nobody came to claim the remains.”

She added about the two academics, “They were traumatized by working on the case. They were advocates for these people, and they were horrified by what the city did.”

Of the educational videos, Rouse said the remains were used as an instructional aid to teach a discipline with ramifications for history, epidemiology and archeology, among others. “How would you teach forensic anthropology, otherwise” she asked.

In its statement, the Penn Museum made the same point. However, it cited its new policy regarding the skull collection and added: “We will be reassessing our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying and researching human remains.”

It also defended its work over the years to identify the remains, saying the intent was to “restore the individual’s personhood, help solve this painful case in the city’s history, and bring resolution to the community.”