‘We are not subjects of study!’: Protesters march on Penn Museum to decry handling of MOVE remains

  • Ximena Conde/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — More than 100 people rallied Wednesday evening in front of Penn Museum to call on the University of Pennsylvania to immediately return remains belonging to children who died in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

“They’ve been doing this to our Black bodies for hundreds of years, in the name of science, in the name of study,” said YahNé Ndgo, striking a chord with the crowd. “We are not subjects of study, we are human beings!”

Eleven members of the MOVE family died when Philadelphia officials dropped explosives on the home of the Black liberation group, which had clashed with police, and let the fire burn. Five children died in the blaze, including Tree Africa, 14, and Delisha Africa, 12.

Bones thought to have belonged to the two girls were stored at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for decades through a muddled chain of custody, and then transferred back and forth between Penn and Princeton University.

“I don’t know enough about anthropology to know if collections are necessary or not necessary,” said protester and Penn graduate Zoe Sturges. “But someone who died in 1985 whose mother is still alive, whose siblings are still alive, that person should not be part of a collection. That’s not history, that’s something that’s still current and those are people who need to be properly buried and laid to rest.”

The girls’ surviving family members say they were never told of the existence of the remains, which were also used in a public online forensics course. (Princeton suspended the course after the current controversy erupted.)

Wednesday’s protesters also demanded answers about the city’s role, asking how anthropologist Alan Mann, then at Penn and later at Princeton, had been allowed to hold onto the remains after the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office tasked him in the ‘80s with trying to identify them.

It’s not the first time the Penn Museum has come under fire for holding human remains. This month, the museum announced plans to repatriate dozens of skulls of Black people from its Morton Crania Collection, which was amassed through unethical means and for research supporting white supremacy.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who has long advocated for the repatriation of the Morton Collection and helped shed light on the situation with the MOVE remains, told the crowd that the researchers were continuing a practice of disrespecting Black bodies by treating human bones “like an academic game of hot potato.”

“The fact that academics used these bones to further their own research dehumanizes the victims of this tragedy,” added City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the area and joined the protest. “And it resurfaces the long and fraught history of experimentation on Black people’s bodies.”

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier joined protesters outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier joined protesters outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Demonstrators, who included members of Black Lives Matter Philly, marched from the Penn Museum to the president’s house flanked by more than a dozen bike cops. There, they called for the firing of Janet Monge, curator of the museum’s physical anthropology section.

As a student, Monge helped Mann try to identify the remains decades ago, and has since moved up the ranks. She is the researcher seen using the remains as teaching tools in the online forensic course.

Penn Museum issued an apology to the family on Monday by sending out a note via Twitter and email to reporters — just as MOVE members were about to begin a press conference addressing the situation.

“We understand the importance of reuniting the remains with the family and we are working now to find a respectful, consultative resolution,” read the apology.

Protesters called for the firing of Penn Museum’s Janet Monge, at a protest outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Protesters called for the firing of Penn Museum’s Janet Monge, at a protest outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To protesters and surviving members of MOVE, who treat each other like family and all take the same last name, the apology comes too little, too late.

In addition to firing Monge and an investigation into how she and Mann kept custody of the partial remains, the organization said it wants reparations and the release of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal, a longtime MOVE supporter, is serving a life sentence for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer.

Mike Africa Jr. and Pam Africa demanded for the remains to be immediately returned, and Penn has said it plans to do that — but it’s still unclear where they are, since the university said it shipped them recently to Mann, but Mann told the Inquirer this week he doesn’t have them.

For Africa Jr., the revelations of the past month have raised questions about what the city might have done with other remains.

“Where are they?” he asked the crowd. “Because you know that if they took Tree and Delisha, they didn’t leave the other ones behind.”

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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