How the Possession of Human Remains Led to a Public Reckoning at the Penn Museum

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How the Possession of Human Remains Led to a Public Reckoning at the Penn Museum

PHILADELPHIA — On April 21 of this year, journalists Abdul-Aliy Muhammad of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Maya Kassuto of BillyPenn revealed that two Ivy League forensic anthropologists held the remains of children murdered by police in the 1985 bombing of the MOVE organization. Though the publication of this news was met with a wave of protests, media coverage, and statements of condemnation, for years it had been an “open secret” that professors Alan Mann and Janet Monge held Tree Africa’s and Delisha Africa’s remains in their personal collections. We, as Penn Anthropology student-activists, want to tell the story of how this “open secret” became a public reckoning through the concrete actions and risks of a small coalition of community activists, students, and university employees committed to challenging institutionalized anti-Blackness.

On December 14, 1985, Alan Mann, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, received the remains of 14-year-old Tree Africa from Philadelphia assistant medical director Robert Segal during the city’s investigation of the bombing. Mann, Monge, and Segal dispute the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission on MOVE that confirmed the remains belonged to Tree Africa. In 2019, Janet Monge of the University of Pennsylvania used Tree Africa’s remains as a teaching prop in front of over two thousand enrollees in an online course, Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology, filmed against the backdrop of the Samuel G. Morton Cranial Collection. In her thesis in 2019, one of Monge’s own undergraduate students, Jane Weiss, confirmed the Penn Museum also held Delisha Africa’s remains — which the museum still denies. We know several people who learned of the information in 2016. Mann and Monge retained remains from the bombing of MOVE since September 23, 1986, all without the consent of the victims’ families.

Following the bombing and burning of their home, MOVE family members had only fragments of their loved ones to bury. Of what little remained, Mann and Monge kept some fragments in the name of “science.” A report commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania reveals that Monge contacted Tree Africa’s mother, Consuewella Africa, in 2014. (Although they share the last name Africa, as was customary for members of MOVE, Tree Africa and Delisha Africa do not share biological parents.) Consuewella objected to Monge’s continued use of her daughter’s remains for research. Even after those objections, Monge used Tree Africa’s remains for teaching. How does the terrain of such anti-Black behavior shift from unremarkable, and even permissible, to condemnable? What does it look like to challenge anti-Black logics and practices in museums and universities?

In April 2019, community activist and West Philadelphian Abdul-Aliy Muhammad went to a conference hosted by the Penn and Slavery Project, a collective of professors and students researching the legacies of slavery at the University of Pennsylvania. There, Muhammad learned that the Penn Museum held the cranial collection of Samuel G. Morton, an early phrenologist and race scientist. Janet Monge is the collection’s curator. Between 1830 and 1851, Samuel Morton leveraged colonial networks and the slave trade infrastructure to collect and measure about 1,000 human skulls. Morton used his research to argue for white supremacy, justify the enslavement of Africans, and rationalize European colonization. Through the research conducted by the Penn and Slavery Project, Muhammad learned that about 60 skulls in the collection belonged to enslaved Africans, many of which came from a single mass plantation grave site in Cuba. Muhammad soon launched a petition and penned an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirerdemanding that the Penn Museum repatriate the remains of all enslaved people in the Morton Collection and, if locating their direct descendants proved impossible, deliver them to Black spiritual leaders in Philadelphia. They received no response from the university.

Amid global protests over police murders in the summer of 2020, students, faculty, and employees at the University of Pennsylvania formed the abolitionist assembly PoliceFreePenn, of which we are both active members. Among its goals, PoliceFreePenn demands that Penn “redress the legacy of racism, colonialism, and slavery on campus” through acts of repatriation and reparations. In July 2020, PoliceFreePenn partnered with Muhammad to lead an email campaign demanding the Penn Museum completely abolish the Morton Collection. These direct actions built on the efforts of students and faculty who raised ethical concerns regarding the museum’s holding and display of the collection in a classroom. The museum eventually removed the crania from public display and formed a committee of museum insiders to decide the collection’s future.

In February 2021, anthropology graduate student Paul Wolff Mitchell published an article detailing that, in addition to the enslaved Africans from Cuba, the Morton Collection also contained 14 skulls of Black Philadelphians stolen by Morton from unmarked graves in the city. The news prompted a second action by Muhammad and PoliceFreePenn: a rally at the museum, which featured Black spiritual leaders from Philadelphia, members of PoliceFreePenn, the Penn and Slavery Project, and Mitchell. Protestors demanded the immediate repatriation of Black Philadelphians to spiritual leaders in the community. They also demanded the oversight committee be made transparent and community led. The next day, the museum announced its intent to begin a repatriation process. The following week, Muhammad and Kassuto published the news that Janet Monge, the curator of the Morton Collection, also had in her possession Tree Africa’s and Delisha Africa’s remains.

The Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (via Wikimedia Commons)

The activism around the Morton Collection built on the momentum of the uprisings against police brutality in the summer of 2020. But in West Philadelphia, no conversation about police brutality can overlook the bombing of MOVE. Pam Africa, Ramona Africa, Mike Africa Jr., and other members of the MOVE organization have consistently been raising awareness about the bombing, which killed six adults and five children, working to hold the city accountable, and demanding the release of political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal. Meanwhile, as curator of the Morton collection, Monge was using Tree Africa’s remains in an online course. Anti-Black state violence and anti-Blackness at the university past and present converge.

While MOVE members rapidly worked to organize a response to the news, activists at the museum sought to support their efforts. PoliceFreePenn launched a second email campaign, in which thousands of participants nationwide wrote to the Penn President and Penn Museum administrators demanding that the museum return the remains to the families of Tree Africa and Delisha Africa along with financial reparations. Shortly thereafter, MOVE held a press conference in which the children’s mothers spoke to the recurring traumas of state violence, now repeated by the university and exacerbated by its lack of accountability. Mike Africa Jr. and Krystal Strong, a Penn faculty and a member of PoliceFreePenn, then organized a protest at the museum, which culminated in a march to the Penn President’s house and a heartfelt remembrance of Tree Africa’s and Delisha Africa’s lives.

The university responded by hiring the Tucker Law Group to conduct an internal investigation led by Joe Tucker, a former Penn professor. The objectivity of a behind-closed-doors investigation led by a former employee is questionable in itself, but the investigation’s findings further demonstrate the violence of institutional complicity and the need for a transparent and publicly accountable process. The Tucker Law Group report concludes Mann’s and Monge’s behavior showed “extremely poor judgement” and “gross insensitivity to human dignity,” but did not explicitly violate any institutional, ethical, or legal code. If “gross insensitivity to human dignity” is not grounds for accountability, we must question who, if anyone, these institutional, ethical, and legal codes serve to protect (Princeton launched a similar investigation, which comes to different conclusions and is far more damning of Monge’s actions). To truly understand institutional complicity here would require an investigation into how the bureaucratic machinations of an institution (the Penn Museum of Anthropology) and a discipline (forensic anthropology) produce codes of conduct that permit white researchers to disregard Black dignity.

Further, the Tucker Law Group report’s disproportionate focus on graduate student Paul Wolff Mitchell entirely erases the impact of organizing and direct action outlined above. Indeed, the report mentions only one protest at the museum, and implies that the outrage over the theft of the remains of Black children murdered by police was due to an interpersonal dispute between Mitchell and Janet Monge. The university disavows the existence of radical organizing in and around campus in order to deny accountability for its actions. They would prefer to keep their colonial museum collections, militarized police force, tax-free real estate, and investments in fossil fuels, while avoiding reparations to the people of Philadelphia.

At the University of Pennsylvania and the Penn Museum, we hear oft-repeated commitments to “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “anti-racism.” However, the actions of these institutions indicate that their default position is complicity, not accountability. It was activists and their allies inside and outside the university who came together to genuinely disrupt this status quo. Our actions and declarations about the past shape our future. Activists (including the authors of this piece) will continue to come together to expose anti-Blackness at the university, including the legacy of Albert Kligman, who performed medical experiments on Black prisoners that resulted in lifelong illnesses to develop his lucrative Retin-A formula. We will continue to stand with union organizers at the museum, who have successfully asserted their power as workers to shape the museum’s future. The revelations about the university’s treatment of Tree Africa’s and Delisha Africa’s remains come against this backdrop of sustained historical study, community partnership, and solidarity-building between established voices like Mike Africa Jr., Pam Africa, and Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, and emerging campus groups like Penn and Slavery Project and PoliceFreePenn. This is the material organizing required to genuinely challenge the legacies of racism and colonialism in museums, universities, and beyond.

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