On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia police department bombed the shared home of a Black liberation group, MOVE, killing 11 people including five children. The remains of those children are reportedly now being used in an anthropology course backed by Princeton University.
According to a report by The Guardian, both Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania have been in possession of the one or two of the children killed in the bombing since 1985 in their anthropological collections.
In 2019, the schools started using the bones in classes, without the permission of the children’s living parents.
The outlet reported the remains are being used in a class entitled "Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology" that explores “lost personhood” cases where a person can’t be identified because of the condition of their remains.
News of the course and the schools’ use of the children’s remains comes just a few days before the city of Philadelphia holds its first official day of remembrance to honor those lost in the bombing. Last year, the city formally apologized for the bombing after more than three decades.
The course was pre-recorded in February 2019 by adjunct anthropology professor Janet Monge for the 5,000 students who have taken the class.
The remains potentially belong to two teenage girls who died in the fire caused by the bombing. Though the bones have never been positively identified, both of the girls’ parents are still living in the Philadelphia area.
Michael Africa, Jr., a MOVE member who was six years old at the time of the bombing, and friend of one of the girls who died, told the outlet, nobody from the group gave the schools permission to use the remains.
“Nobody said you can do that, holding up their bones for the camera. That’s not how we process our dead. This is beyond words The anthropology professor is holding the bones of a 14-year-old girl whose mother is still alive and grieving,” Michael Africa Jr. said.
The revelation of the use of the victims’ remains has added to ongoing calls to address the way academic institutions misuse the remains of Black people.
“There are people alive who are affected by this, not just in an emotional way but in a trauma-inducing way that could be harmful,” author and historian Samuel Redman told The Guardian. “The notion of ‘do no harm’ should be part and parcel of our research and teaching –– we need to wrestle with this problem much more completely.”
Anthropology professor Michael Blakey, who helped orchestrate the African Burial Ground in New York City, told the outlet that this misuse of the children’s remains is white privilege at work. “The United States continues to operate on the basis of white privilege. What you are seeing here is the scientific manifestation of that –– the objectification of the ‘other’, and the disempathy that is socialized in a society in which whites assume that they have control,” Blakey said.
The current location of the remains is unknown as they have reportedly been carted between Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania and neither institution says they have the children’s bones. The professor who taught the course didn’t give the outlet a comment.
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