As horrifying as the city and Penn Museum’s mishandling of the remains of MOVE victims is, their actions have historical precedent and are in line with numerous other disrespectful incidents involving the bodies of African Americans over the years.
Enslaved Africans were used for all manner of medical experimentation. And during the late 19th century, grave robbers were known to steal the remains of Black people from a South Philly burial ground and take them to Jefferson Medical College for research.
The infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment from 1932 to 1972 ruined the lives of several hundred Black men who were treated as human guinea pigs in the name of science.
Then there’s Henrietta Lacks, the poor African American woman who was suffering from terminal cervical cancer in 1951 when tissue was removed from her body without her knowledge or consent at Johns Hopkins University Hospital. The tissue multiplied rapidly and became known as HeLa cells, which were put into widespread use in medical experiments and treatments still in use today.
This latest atrocity is beyond horrible. The MOVE victims’ remains have been treated like laboratory specimens, passed from the University of Pennsylvania to Princeton University and then back to Penn. According to the Guardian, they were even included in a now-deleted video promoting a class called “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology.”
The City of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania have a lot of explaining to do.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has hired Dechert LLP, one of Philadelphia’s leading law firms, to investigate and has agreed to allow the Africa family’s lawyers to participate. Officials have pledged to probe not just the current administration’s handling of the remains but also that of all the administrations that preceded it.
“This is a 36-year-old incident that has been mishandled for a long time,” Kenney said Tuesday during a meeting with The Inquirer’s editorial board. “We would like to be the administration that gets to the bottom of everything that happened and put in place procedures and policies to keep them from happening again.”
That’s a start. However, this disturbing situation warrants independent eyes. For maximum objectivity, it can’t just be a Kenney administration effort. That’s why I was pleased to learn that City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is looking into launching a separate investigation. As an elected official, Rhynhart operates independently and her office is known for its objective examinations of abuses of power such as the disgraceful teargassing of Black Lives Matter protesters during the demonstrations last year over police brutality.
“It’s a troubling chain of events,” Rhynhart told me Monday. “Yes, we do need to get to the bottom of it.”
So many questions need to be answered: What happened to the bodies of the 11 people — six adults and five children — who perished after authorities bombed a bunker on their house, igniting a fire that destroyed a city block? Why were some remains still in city custody? Whom did former Health Commissioner Tom Farley order to dispose of the remains in 2017? Did that employee follow through? If not, what did the employee do with the remains? And were the MOVE victims’ remains really what the city reportedly discovered Friday?
“The City of Philadelphia and Penn have apologized for what they have done, and Princeton has apologized too,” Mike Africa Jr. told me Monday before adding, “Apology without action is manipulation.”
He’s right. There needs to be accountability for what has transpired. Firing Farley last week was a start, but it doesn’t go far enough. As I pointed out earlier, this kind of disrespect of Black bodies has gone on for far too long. It’s time to end this sad chapter. Whatever remains of the MOVE victims once belonged to human beings with hopes and dreams like the rest of us. Their remains deserve more dignity than what the city and the University of Pennsylvania have shown them.