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Penn Museum seeks to rebury stolen skulls of Black Philadelphians and ignites pushback

Activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad says the university needs to work with the community to determine the next steps

Activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad.
Activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Since the 19th century, the skulls of 13 Black Philadelphians — stolen from graves or otherwise unethically obtained — have been held by the city’s intellectual elite.

Now a community activist is contesting a plan by the Penn Museum, one of the nation’s premiere anthropology museums, to rebury those skeletal remains, saying the university institution is rushing a process that should not be in its control in the first place.

The matter is before a Pennsylvania judge in Orphans Court.

» READ MORE: Rally demands the repatriation of the Penn Museum’s Morton skull collection

The Penn Museum initiated the reburial of the 13 skulls, part of a collection of more than 1,300 skulls amassed by white supremacist and physician Samuel Morton, after a social movement to reckon with the ongoing harm from the nation’s racist past gripped the nation in 2020.

Morton subscribed to the racist, long-debunked theory of phrenology.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a community activist who has been active in calls for the reburial of the collection’s skulls, filed an objection to the plan in court.

Muhammad, who was appointed to the Morton Cranial Collection Community Advisory Group last year, said the process was rushed from the beginning. Penn Museum director Christopher Woods immediately presented the group with a plan to bury the skulls in Eden Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery in Collingdale, Muhammad said.

“We need to slow this down. It doesn’t make sense for the institution to be the steward of this process,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad wants the remains reburied, but believes Penn is moving without enough community support or control. In the objection, Muhammad also raised concerns that the university has not adequately worked to identify the skulls or find potential next of kin, and said Penn should release more information about the research that had been conducted on them.

“Ultimately, I want our ancestors to be at rest,” Muhammad said. “I also understand the importance of having a community controlled process for something so deeply disturbing.”

“We need to slow this down. It doesn’t make sense for the institution to be the steward of this process.”

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a community activist

After a few initial meetings with the committee, Muhammad traveled out of town and wasn’t aware of a voting process or final decision.

Muhammad hadn’t been notified about the Orphan’s Court petition until it was entered last week, according to the community activist, who was disturbed to be listed as part of the community advisory committee on the petition after raising concerns about the reburial plan.

In a statement, Penn said it was acting on recommendations made by the advisory group. A spokesperson for the university said none of the other members of the advisory group had filed an objection, and that it had “unanimous consensus” to recommend Eden as the burial site from group members who were at a Nov. 3 meeting. The group also recommended holding an interfaith memorial service there.

A Penn spokesperson said “each and every” group member was notified of those recommendations in December, and that the petition was “a necessary procedural step” taken to implement them.

The case is now in front of an administrative judge, who has yet to respond.

Healing a rift centuries in the making

The community advisory group first convened last summer to make recommendations about how the Penn Museum should bury and commemorate the remains of Black Philadelphians who were part of the Morton collection. The group included community representatives and faith leaders along with Penn employees.

James Wright, another member of the advisory group and a lifelong West Philadelphia resident, supported the burial of the remains at Eden.

Wright said he also did not know the burial plans had been finalized, but said the advisory group had discussed burying the remains at Eden in past meetings. Faith leaders in the group had advocated that the remains be buried as soon as possible out of respect for the dead, Wright said.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Wright said, adding there is more work to do to heal the relationship between Penn and the surrounding community. “I didn’t think that this conversation was over.”