Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania

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No one seems to be sure what happened to a set of remains thought to be two children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

For decades, the bones were kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A Penn Museum spokesperson said the remains have since been transferred to the care of researchers at Princeton — but an administrator at the New Jersey university was uncertain of their whereabouts. After this story published, a spokesperson said Princeton does not have them.

The indifferent treatment of the remains is not new. At Penn, according to people with first-hand knowledge, they were not kept in climate-controlled storage. They were kept in a cardboard box on a shelf.

Mike Africa Jr., a current member of the MOVE organization, was shocked and disturbed by the news that his relatives had been denied a resting place.

“They were bombed, and burned alive,” Africa Jr. said, “and now you wanna keep their bones.”

Princeton Anthropology Department Chair Carolyn Rouse wasn’t sure of the remains’ current location. Reached by phone, she said they might be in a lab run by Alan Mann, the now-retired professor who had been studying them with Janet Monge, curator of Penn Museum’s physical anthropology section.

According to both universities, Mann was given custody of the remains by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office in the 1980s, when he analyzed them at the city’s request. At the time, he worked at Penn. When Mann transferred to Princeton in 2001, he reportedly took the bones with him.

“I don’t know exactly what’s in that room,” Rouse said about Mann’s Princeton lab, where he collaborated with Monge. “Nobody knows what’s in the lab but them.”

Rouse lived in Philadelphia when the bombing happened, she added. “I’m very aware of the profoundness of the MOVE thing. But nobody has been asking about the MOVE remains,” she said. “There’s no conspiracy here. … It’s just that this is now just becoming a thing.”

Six adults and five children lost their lives during the 1985 attack on the Osage Avenue MOVE compound. Last year, city lawmakers formally apologized for the incident, which shocked the nation when Philadelphia dropped a bomb on its own citizenry, destroying an entire block in the process. None of the officials in charge at the time ended up facing consequences.

As part of its work unpacking what had gone wrong, the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission hired a renowned forensic scientist to examine the human remains found in the rubble. Soon after the bombing, he identified some of the bones as being from a 14-year-old victim, known as Tree, and a 12-year-old victim named Delisha. According to documents exchanged by officials at the time, there was some uncertainty about that finding, so the city enlisted Mann to double check.

Mann was assisted by Monge, according to city records, who was a Penn student at the time. Thirty years later, as a Penn Museum curator, she began to reanalyze the remains.

“With new technology available in the museum’s lab, Keeper and Associate Curator of the Physical Anthropology Section Dr. Janet Monge led continued investigations to confirm the person’s identity from 2016 to 2019,” said UPenn spokesperson Jill DiSanto via email. “The remains were returned to the care and stewardship of Dr. Mann at Princeton University.”

But Mann received emeritus status from Princeton in 2015, and has not officially worked at the university for years. Monge is no longer affiliated with Princeton, leaving the stewardship of the remains an open question.

“Based on our initial investigation,” wrote spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, who said this article spurred an immediate search, “we can confirm that no remains of the victims of the MOVE bombing are being housed at Princeton University.”

MOVE remains used in teaching video

Penn Museum said the remains were transferred to Mann’s custody by the Medical Examiner’s Office “for continued analysis.” But James Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, emphasized that the city office only releases individuals’ remains to their next of kin. In the case that remains go unidentified, he said, they are cremated.

“As a matter of policy, remains would never be released to a third-party without the consent of the next of kin,” Garrow added.

Yet Mann and Monge did have possession of the MOVE-connected remains, for decades. During her recent analysis, Monge also apparently used them as teaching materials in a public online forensics course. In the video, Monge and a Penn student prod the bones before the camera like chipper science teachers.

Upon seeing the video for the first time, Africa Jr. was disturbed beyond words.

The MOVE remains aren’t the first to incite controversy at the Penn Museum. Last week, following years of persistent protest from the university’s student body and surrounding community, the museum released a statement regarding its Morton Collection. Made up of more than 1,000 skulls, the collection was amassed by a 19th century white supremacist researcher who directed workers to pull the bones from unmarked graves.

Calling the possession of the Morton Collection “unethical,” the museum and university pledged to repatriate them. “It is time for these individuals to be returned to their ancestral communities, wherever possible, as a step toward atonement and repair,” UPenn officials said in a statement.

Institutions around the U.S. have begun trying to decolonize their collections over the past year, as curators come to the realization that it’s dehumanizing to hold remains of Black people and others taken without consent.

“We will be reassessing our practices of collecting, stewarding, displaying, and researching human remains, a direct result of the Morton Committee’s recommendations,” Penn spokesperson DiSanto told Billy Penn.

Several students and museum employees said they had heard about or seen the MOVE-associated remains at Penn.

“I don’t actually know why they were still there,” said a former collections assistant in the museum’s physical anthropology department. The Penn graduate, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their current job, described “whisper down the lane”-style conversations about the remains. “You don’t know if you’re getting the exact provenance of any of these things.”

A brave 14-year-old and a clever 12-year-old

Provenance is a word frequently employed in anthropology and archaeology to explain the origin of an item — describing which museum, which dig site, or which archive it came from. For Africa Jr., in this case the matter is a simple one.

“They came from people,” he said. “They came from people that came from people.”

Africa Jr. was 6 years old when the city bombed the house where his loved ones lived. He lost his family, lost the friends he ate and slept and played with.

He remembered Tree, the 14-year-old, as being sensitive and brave. “When we would be at the park, especially if we went to a new park, she would run, scour the park, for the biggest tree. The biggest tree. So she could climb it. And no one, no one could climb higher than she could. She didn’t have any fear about the height. It seemed like the higher she went, the more comfortable she was. She never feared the way up.”

Other children in the family would race Tree sometimes, Africa Jr. said, climbing as fast as they could. But there wasn’t much of a point. “She’d be at the top looking down at everybody, including her competitors, with a gigantic smile on her face. I beat you again.”

When Tree was climbing, 12-year-old Delisha was right on her tail, resourceful and clever. The children of MOVE were kept on a diet of raw foods, and Delisha’s claim to fame was pilfering snacks from the adults, or money to buy them with. “She was like the person that you enjoy getting in trouble with,” Africa Jr. said. He was always getting caught, he said — not as smart as his playmate. “And Delisha would be looking at me shaking her head. As if to say, you have a lot to learn, grasshopper.”

Last November, when local lawmakers issued a formal apology for destroying the compound where these children lived, the resolution read, in part: “The Council of the City of Philadelphia hereby apologizes for the decisions leading to the devastation of May 13, 1985 and acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of the MOVE Bombing.”

Council declared that the anniversary of the incident would be recognized as “a day of observation, reflection and recommitment … in the spirit of moving forward, reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people” in Philadelphia.

This year, the current members of MOVE are planning to commemorate May 13, Africa Jr. said, with actions and events designed to remind the city that the group is still around and active.

Members of the MOVE family in the 1980s Credit: Courtesy On A Move

Forensic debates and respect for humanity

Over the decades, some anthropologists at Penn have cast doubt on the idea that the bones in question are indeed the remains of young MOVE bombing victims.

An initial analysis was conducted in 1985 by the city’s assistant medical examiner, Robert J. Segal. The Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission also brought in forensic pathologist Ali Hameli, who gained renown helping identify the remains of Nazis.

Hameli found that the bodies pulled from in the rubble on Osage Avenue belonged to six adults and five children, the commission’s report shows. His detailed analysis of bones and teeth concluded that some were from Delisha Africa, a child around 12 years of age, and others were from Katricia “Tree” Africa, whom he estimated at around 14 when she was killed.

In November of that year, Segal, the medical examiner, asked Penn Museum anthropologist Alan Mann to take another look at the remains. Mann, who worked on the project with then-assistant/now-curator Monge, contested the original findings, suggesting that Tree’s remains were from an older person and that Delisha’s remains were from a much younger child.

Hameli unequivocally maintained his original findings were accurate. In a letter to the commission’s staff director, Hameli wrote, “Apparently following the commission’s hearing, Drs. Segal and Mann reviewed again G and B-1 Bodies and decided to challenge my identification of these two cases.” After examining each claim, he asserted, “my initial opinion remains unchanged.”

The challenge that the remains are not those of the young MOVE victims surfaces again in the teaching video recorded by curator Monge, which was published on Coursera.

In the video, Monge appears with an undergraduate student, Jane Weiss, to whom she refers as “the person who’s looked at [the bones] most carefully.” For Weiss’ undergraduate senior thesis, she was attempting to determine the age of the remains, a question Monge seems to consider unanswered. As the two prod the bones, they impersonally debate the ages of the people to whom they once belonged. “14 or 16, right?” says Weiss. “More, you know, in the 18-plus kind of a category,” Monge suggests.

What happens with the remains now?

That Penn Museum researchers were treating the bones so casually isn’t an anomaly, said a current employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Human remains are often used as props and curiosities in the physical anthropology section,” the museum staffer said. “[T]he ethical and the emotional connections and relations that exist around these remains and their descendent communities are obscured, because everything is viewed as a scientific specimen.”

The former collections assistant, described a gulf between Penn Museum’s administration and the section that houses the Morton Collection and MOVE remains. “It almost seemed like the museum was ashamed to have the physical anthropology department,” they said. “It just kind of felt like people didn’t really want to talk about it.”

The absence of ethics, void of communication, and abdication of responsibility regarding these remains mirror the circumstances that led to the 1985 disaster. Neither the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Penn Museum, or Princeton University claims stewardship of the remains. It seems no one wants these bones except their families, who have been deprived of the right to bury them for over 35 years.

Having spent his life advocating for his parents’ release from prison, and now working with MOVE for the release of other incarcerated people of color, Africa seemed unfazed by the prospect of another fight.

He didn’t particularly want to talk about the remains of his family members. It’s not remembering them that’s unpleasant, he said, but seeing them in this context. He said he thinks about Tree and Delisha and the three other children who died every day.

“You ever have a good day, and then you just want to hold onto that day … but eventually it fades away?” Africa Jr. said. “Well, with them kids it’s like, that’s how I feel every day. Sometimes a day’ll go by, it’ll be 11 o’clock at night before I fall asleep, and I’ll say to myself, ‘Oh I didn’t think about ’em.’ Then there they are. You know? Every day.”

Maya Kassutto is a writer in Philadelphia. She has spent a lot of time thinking about love and relationships, public education, environmentalism, and books.