As It Happens

Penn Museum apologizes for collecting bones of victims of slavery and police violence

Twice this month the museum and the University of Pennsylvania has apologized for housing, first, an unethically collected set of skulls associated with researcher who sought to justify white supremacy, then the remains of a victim of a police bombing in 1985.

Former researcher sought to justify white supremacy with his large collection of human skulls

Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania have issued apologies twice this month for holding collections that includes the bones of enslaved people and victims of police violence. (Submitted by Penn Museum)

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The University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has some explaining to do.

Earlier this month, the museum announced a plan to repatriate or rebury the remains of Black men and women housed within its Samuel G. Morton collection. It apologized for the "unethical possession of human remains" that were gathered throughout the 1830s and '40s by a researcher who sought to justify white supremacy.

Then, this week, the museum issued another apology related to a separate set of human remains: bones recovered from the site of a 1985 police bombing in Philadelphia that killed six members of a Black separatist organization called MOVE, along with five of their children.

The university struck a committee in August 2020 to "examine ongoing issues pertaining to its Morton Cranial Collection" and make recommendations for how to deal with ancestral remains.

Using measurements of skulls, Morton tried to establish a link between intelligence and head size of various racial groups and further entrench a racial hierarchy in the U.S., a theory that has been debunked by modern science.

"So the Morton Collection consists of over 300 crania which were collected by Samuel Morton and others in the mid-19th century," Christopher Woods, director of the Penn Museum, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "They come from all parts of the world and range and date from ancient Egypt to the 19th century." 

It's "very likely" that some of the people whose remains Morton collected were born into slavery, Woods said. 

In a report released April 8, the committee shared a series of recommendations that include apologizing for collecting the remains and, whenever possible, returning them to their descendants and communities of origin as "a step towards atoning for the racist, unethical, and colonial practices which were integral to the formation of these collections."

Woods, who joined the museum's staff April 1, issued an apology on behalf of the museum.

Bombing victim's remains used in forensics class

But that apology prompted an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, calling out the museum for previously holding a much more recent set of remains that has not yet been returned to the family for a proper burial — those recovered from the 1985 MOVE bombing.

As writer and organizer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad explained in that piece, the bones were given to former University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Mann, a forensic anthropologist and the museum's curator at the time, to help determine if they belonged to Tree Africa, who was 14 when she was killed in the bombing.

That question was never answered, but when Mann left the University of Pennsylvania in 2001, he took the remains with him to his new teaching post at Princeton University in New Jersey, Woods said. 

Christopher Woods, who joined the museum as director April 1, 2021, apologized on behalf of the museum for 'unethical possession of human remains.' (Submitted by Penn Museum)

"The remains were entrusted to him personally, not to the museum or to the university, but to him personally to do this study. The remains were then used in a class in recent years at Princeton University, but taught by a staff member of the museum, and that should never have happened," he said.

Though forensic anthropology classes require human remains in order to train the next generation of specialists, Woods said, "we expect informed consent when using human remains from living community."

"So that clearly wasn't given. And that was that was a terrible lapse in judgment," he said. 

Muhammad wrote that while Princeton has a role in accounting for the unreturned remains, "it's especially important for Penn to do so since they are located just blocks away from where the MOVE bombing took place." 

'Apology without action is meaningless'

On Wednesday, the university and the museum issued a second apology, this time to the Africa family and the members of the Philadelphia community "for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long."

Responding to the apology this week, MOVE member Mike Africa Jr. told BNC News #BlackNewsTonight host Marc Lamont Hill that "apology without action is meaningless." 

"I don't even know how to think about or accept something like that based on coming from an atrocity like this. This is not something that they didn't know. It wasn't an oversight. They're talking about this. They're teaching this. They're holding [the remains] and passing it around like it's a hot potato. This is disturbing. It is egregious."

WATCH | Mike Africa, Jr. and Dr. Krsytal Strong talk about the apology

Speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mann said he didn't return the remains earlier because he hadn't been able to identify them and that he doesn't know where they are today.

"I wouldn't given them back years ago, if anyone had asked me," Mann told the Inquirer. "There's absolutely no reason for us to keep them. They should be given back."

The museum says is goal is to reunite the remains with the Africa family. The same goes for the Morton collection remains, said Woods.

"Our goal is to listen to local communities and to repatriate whenever possible … we're taking steps and making investments in order in order to do this."

Written by Brandie Weikle and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.

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