The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors’ views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
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.
MOVE, which historian of religion Juan Floyd-Thomas has characterized as a “revolutionary Black humanist group,” was organized around a radical commitment to a vision of nature as the truth that would free people from the corruption of “the system.” The group’s spiritual dimensions led the press and Philadelphia officials to characterize it as a cult, a powerful and often racialized label of marginalization in American history. This framing supported the militarized scale of the attack on the MOVE house, which included the use of military explosives, and the callous determination to “let the fire burn” that resulted in such death and destruction.
As of Friday, the University has suspended the Coursera course, and the videos using the bones of the MOVE victims will be taken down. The Penn Museum, where the remains had been held since 2015 and where Monge used them to film the course, has reportedly returned the bones to Mann. Members of the MOVE family are demanding they be returned and that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton engage in reparative measures.
Thus far, the University’s response, when asked by the press for comment, has been to deny that the remains are being housed on the campus, as one early report claimed, to indicate that the suspension of the course has been done “out of respect for the victims of the MOVE bombing and their families,” and to state that policies regarding the use of human remains in teaching and research are being reviewed.
The University should move beyond denial to pursue restitution and repair. It should acknowledge that Monge’s use of the remains without the consent of family constitutes an ethical violation and apologize for sponsorship of the course. There should be an investigation into whether the remains were used within courses or for independent research at Princeton and the findings should be made public. It is simply not enough to assert, as has a University spokesperson, that nothing “improper is currently taking place at Princeton.” The victims of the MOVE bombing, their families, and those of us at Princeton invested in Black history and communities deserve more.
Judith Weisenfeld, Professor, Religion
Ruha Benjamin, Professor, African American Studies
Joshua B. Guild, Associate Professor, African American Studies
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Professor, African American Studies
Tera W. Hunter, Professor, History and African American Studies
Beth Lew-Williams, Associate Professor, History
Rosina A. Lozano, Associate Professor, History
Naomi Murakawa, Associate Professor, African American Studies
Chika Okeke-Agulu, Professor, Art and Archaeology and African American Studies
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Associate Professor, Classics
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Professor, African American Studies
Wendy Laura Belcher, Professor, Comparative Literature and African American Studies
Autumn M. Womack, Assistant Professor, African American Studies and English
Reena N. Goldthree, Assistant Professor, African American Studies
Anna Arabindan-Kesson, Assistant Professor, African American Studies and Art and Archaeology
V. Mitch McEwen, Assistant Professor, Architecture
Monica Youn, Lecturer, Creative Writing, Lewis Center for the Arts
Erin Besler, Assistant Professor, Architecture
D. Vance Smith, Professor, English
Melissa Lane, Professor, Politics
Barbara Nagel, Assistant Professor, German
Max Weiss, Associate Professor, History and Near Eastern Studies
Miguel Centeno, Professor, Sociology and SPIA
Brian Eugenio Herrera, Associate Professor, Lewis Center for the Arts
Anna Shields, Professor, East Asian Studies
Karen Emmerich, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature
Pedro Meira Monteiro, Professor, Spanish and Portuguese
Eve Aschheim, Lecturer, Lewis Center for the Arts
Kenneth Tam, Lecturer, Lewis Center for the Arts
Imani Perry, Professor, African American Studies
Monica Huerta, Assistant Professor, English and American Studies
Ben C. Baer, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature
Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Professor, Psychology and SPIA
Bryan Lowe, Assistant Professor, Religion
Sonya Legg, Lecturer, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
Meredith A. Martin, Associate Professor, English
Katie Chenoweth, Associate Professor, French and Italian
Tracy K. Smith, Professor, Lewis Center for the Arts
Sarah Hamerman, Librarian, Princeton University Library, Special Collections
Nicole Legnani, Assistant Professor, Spanish and Portuguese
Jane Cox, Lecturer, Lewis Center for the Arts
Dara Strolovitch, Professor, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Colleen Asper, Lecturer, Lewis Center for the Arts
Rachael DeLue, Professor, Art and Archaeology
Gabriela Nouzeilles, Professor, Latin American Studies
Dannelle Gutarra Cordero, Lecturer, African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies
Stephen F. Teiser, Professor, Religion
Laurence Ralph, Professor, Anthropology
William Gleason, Professor, English and American Studies
Irene V. Small, Associate Professor, Art and Archaeology
Christina A. León, Assistant Professor, English
Sarah Chihaya, Assistant Professor, English
Gayle Salamon, Professor, English and Gender and Sexuality Studies
Shaun Marmon, Associate Professor, Religion
Brooke Holmes, Professor, Classics
Satyel Kaelya Larson, Assistant Professor, Near Eastern Studies
Arcadio Diaz-Quiñones, Professor Emeritus, Spanish and Portuguese
Judith Hamera, Professor, Lewis Center for the Arts
Eldar Shafir, Professor, Psychology and SPIA
Julia Elyachar, Associate Professor, Anthropology and PIIRS
Christina Lee, Associate Professor, Spanish and Portuguese
Yael Niv, Professor, Psychology and Princeton Neuroscience Institute
Robbie Richardson, Assistant Professor, English
Elizabeth Armstrong, Associate Professor, Sociology and SPIA
Ra’anan Boustan, Research Scholar, Program in Judaic Studies
Zia Mian, Senior Research Scholar, Program in Global Security
Beatrice Kitzinger, Assistant Professor, Art and Archaeology
Andrea L. Graham, Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Agustín Fuentes, Professor, Anthropology
Janet Kay, Lecturer, Art & Archaeology
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include more faculty signatures.