Princeton Owes the Families of the MOVE Bombing Victims AnswersRoundup
tags: Princeton, racism, Police, Philadelphia, MOVE, Research Ethics
Judith Weisenfeld is Professor of Religion and Ruha Benjamin is Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. This essay is signed by numerous other Princeton faculty in multiple disciplines.
Last week, in the context of public discussion about the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s plans to repatriate the skulls of Black Philadelphians robbed from graves and housed in the Morton Cranial Collection, it was reported that the Penn Museum also housed the remains of victims of the 1985 Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE community that killed six adults and five children, destroyed more than 60 homes, and left hundreds homeless. Professor Emeritus Alan Mann, who was at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, was hired by the Philadelphia medical examiner to determine the identity of several victims. Following the initial investigation, Mann kept the remains even after joining the Princeton Anthropology faculty in 2001.
The revelation that the remains — which MOVE members believe are of 14-year-old Tree Africa and 13-year-old Delisha Africa — were not buried after the conclusion of the investigation, as the family believed, and have been stored in the museum, labs, and offices, has angered those in the MOVE community and beyond. It is not simply the failure to return the remains to the family that has caused dismay. The exploitation of the bones of Black children killed by state violence has appalled us, and Princeton University played a role in this.
Beginning in 2019, Janet Monge, associate curator of the physical anthropology section of the Penn Museum and visiting professor of anthropology at Princeton, used the remains without the knowledge or consent of the family as part of a case study in her Coursera course, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology,” which is sponsored by the University. In one video in the unit, Monge, joined by a Penn undergraduate, handles the bones, pulling at the attached tissue and describing the smell.
According to course materials, the course unit purports to consider the “very serious issues of social and political consequences of the events that led up to the assault on the Philadelphia neighborhood and their outcome in a confrontation with law enforcement agencies.” The only resources Monge provides about the broader context are links to an article in an online Philadelphia encyclopedia and to MOVE’s website, and none of the course assignments ask students to engage social, political, or ethical issues. Rather than “restoring personhood” and dignity, Monge’s use of these bones further dehumanizes the victims, recalling the long history of commodification of and experimentation on Black people’s bodies.
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