On May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia killed eleven people by bombing the home of the MOVE organization. Local Philadelphia media recently reported that for the 36 years since then, anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and Princeton University kept remains attributed to two children killed in that bombing, Tree and Delisha Africa, without their family’s knowledge or consent. They also filmed these remains for online lectures on forensic anthropology in 2019. During one of these videos, some of these remains were shown to the camera while the Morton Cranial Collection, including the remains of Black Philadelphians and enslaved people, filled shelves in the background. The objectification of human remains and the dehumanization of non-white people remain among the most insidious and persistent legacies of scientific racism in anthropology, archaeology, and museums.
This week, the History of Anthropology Review’s “Morton Collection and Legacies of Scientific Racism in Museums” Participant Observations series will pause its weekly essay release to join calls for action in the “Collective Statement Concerning the Possession and Unethical Use of Remains” posted by the Association of Black Anthropologists, the Society of Black Archaeologists, and the Black in Bioanthropology Collective. Their statement directs to resources concerning the MOVE bombing of 1985 and to the demands of the Africa family. HAR condemns the decades-long, unethical retention of these remains and their use as pedagogical tools.
Our collective reflections on the history of anthropology lead us to the ineluctable recognition that the violence embodied in the mishandling of Tree and Delisha Africa’s remains is not exceptional, but characteristic of much of anthropology’s history. We will continue to ground our scholarship in a critical awareness of anthropology’s involvement in oppressive histories and an orientation toward imagining ethical futures. We stand in solidarity with calls for prompt action to address both the direct harm done to the Africa family and the longstanding effects of scientific racism and white supremacy on anthropological practice.
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