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Princeton owes the families of the MOVE bombing victims answers

Faculty members call on University to act

<h5 class="text-align-right">Burr Hall, where the Anthropology Department is located.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6 class="text-align-right">Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Burr Hall, where the Anthropology Department is located. 
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

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. 

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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.

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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.

Signed,

Judith Weisenfeld, Professor, Religion

Ruha Benjamin, Professor, African American Studies

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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.

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