The City of Philadelphia’s elected officials have let the University of Pennsylvania take the heat for Penn Museum, along with Princeton, keeping the remains of at least one child killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing. But throughout the painful saga, one question hasn’t been answered: Why did academics keep the remains in the first place?
Newly reviewed archival materials suggest the original responsibility for separating these remains from family members lies with Penn and the city.
Both owe direct reparations to the family. The remains were reportedly transferred to a West Philadelphia burial home as of April 30. Penn hired a lawyer who previously worked for the MOVE Commission to look into how the museum acquired the remains and why they were kept, and the city indicated it will start reviewing its records from the time. But neither Penn nor the city has made clear how it will make restitution for not ensuring their earlier return to family.
What is clear is that the chain of custody around these remains has been broken for decades.
Reviewing the timeline
On April 21, after The Inquirer published that Penn had held the remains, Penn anthropology Ph.D. student Paul Wolff Mitchell — whose prior research on Penn’s Morton skull collection indicated that some of those skulls belonged to Black and white Philadelphians — examined publicly available documents related to the MOVE bombing in Temple University’s archives. His findings, shared with the MOVE family and published in full below, raise questions about how anthropologist Alan Mann and his then-assistant, now Penn Museum curator Janet Monge, came to keep remains that the MOVE Commission’s analysis determined belong to 14-year-old Tree Africa.
The crux of Mitchell’s research: After the tragic events of May 13, 1985, the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office hired investigators including Mann, then a Penn professor, to help identify remains from the fire. For a day and a half Mann and Monge, a Ph.D. student at the time, examined the remains, which they concluded belonged to 11 victims -- seven adults and four children.
Mann and Monge’s involvement with the MOVE case should have ended then and there. A few months later, Mitchell finds, the Philadelphia Special Investigative Commission, established by Mayor Wilson Goode, asked Dr. Ali Hameli, a forensic pathologist from Delaware, to reexamine the remains independently from the findings of the Medical Examiner’s Office. The commission instructed the medical examiner not to release any remains of MOVE victims to anyone but Hameli without written authorization.
Hameli, with the support of two colleagues, concluded in November of that year that — in contrast to Mann’s findings — the remains were of five children and six adults. Hameli also reported that among the remains were those of Tree as well as Delisha Orr Africa, who was 12 at the time of the bombing.
Yet Mann argued that Hameli was wrong, leading to a third examination. After Hameli reconfirmed that there were five children, the commission wrote to the Medical Examiner’s Office that December that it “no longer requires that these remains be retained by your Office and please feel free to release them in accordance with normal procedures.” Tree was subsequently buried by the family in a funeral on Dec. 14, 1985, with her sibling, Netta Africa, who also died from the bombing. Delisha was buried by the state on Sept. 22, 1986.
But given that at least some of Tree’s remains ended up at Penn — and reports surfaced last week that Penn and Mann were claiming to return remains belonging to both Tree and Delisha — it’s clear remains that should have gone to the family were held on to by the Medical Examiner’s Office and ended up with Mann.
The right to rest in peace
Since the holding of the remains came to light, Penn has not kept its story around their return straight. Penn Museum’s new director, Christopher Woods, originally stated to The Inquirer that the remains of one MOVE bombing victim were sent to Princeton on April 17, 2021, then told the New York Times they were returned to Mann on April 18. After Inside Higher Ed reported that Mann said he planned to return the remains to Philadelphia’s medical examiner, Mann told The Inquirer he didn’t have the remains and hadn’t seen them in decades. On April 28, a Penn spokesperson said the remains were “accounted for” but would not specify where. Then the Philadelphia Tribune broke the story that the remains were going to a Philadelphia funeral home. The Inquirer reported the day after that Mann declined to comment on the discrepancy between the stories.
“The MOVE children deserve peace. Instead they were lost and shuffled in transit.”
The MOVE children deserve peace. Instead they were lost and shuffled in transit.
When news first broke of Penn holding these remains, Carolyn Rouse, the chair of Princeton’s anthropology department, told The Inquirer: “There’s no racism. This was a forensic investigation and nobody came to claim the remains.”
The problem with this emphatic statement about “no racism” and dismissing this case as “forensic investigation” is that Penn somehow received the remains after the public archives suggest the investigation concluded — and after Mann and Monge’s assignment from the medical examiner ended.
This unfolding story requires that the City of Philadelphia and Mayor Jim Kenney open a full and transparent investigation into this monstrous chain of events, and reaffirms the demands of MOVE calling for the firing of Monge for her decades-long holding of the remains and reparations from the museum for this history.
Black people, our bodies, and our remains are not academic “strange fruit.” We are not playthings nor instruction devices for anthropologists. Our sacred vessels deserve to rest in peace and be respected. There needs to be a broad reckoning for this kind of academic depravity that has left deep wounds. Healing and reconciliation can only happen when the demands of the harmed — particularly the MOVE family — are met.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad is an organizer and writer born and raised in West Philadelphia. @MxAbdulAliy