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Shocked. Disturbed. Enraged. Frustrated. And yet, not entirely surprised.
People affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University were full of emotion after hearing the institutions had mistreated remains of children killed when Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the MOVE organization in 1985.
It’s still unclear who exactly has the remains, which belonged to a 12-year-old named Delisha and a 14-year old known as Tree.
“I’m not going to say I’m shocked, because Penn never fails to have their hands in terrible, disgusting things,” said Malkia Okech, a 23-year-old alum.
Okech, who has worked with the Penn & Slavery Project to uncover links between the Ivy League university and enslavement, said she worked at Penn Museum throughout her undergraduate years, and knew early on of the school’s involvement in forensics research after the MOVE bombing.
“I had no clue that they were not either buried or given back,” Okech said, expressing her disappointment. “I have decided that I have nothing left. I have no sentimentality left for the university or the institution or anything.”
A Billy Penn report published Wednesday detailed how the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office in the 1980s gave Penn researcher Alan Mann possession of the girls’ remains in order to conduct an independent analysis. Mann apparently held onto them, and took them with him when he transferred to Princeton. The bones purportedly bounced back and forth between the institutions over the decades.
“It was like, WTF. Are you serious?” said Penn PhD history candidate Breanna Moore, who worked with Okech on an app for the Penn & Slavery Project. She’s also linked to the institution in another way: as a descendant of African people enslaved by a Penn alum.
“I was shocked,” Moore said in an interview. “I expected to hear this type of information about … something from pre-Civil War Era. Not something recent that actually happened in the ’80s.”
The news comes on the heels of Penn Museum’s formal commitment to repatriating the remains of formerly enslaved Black Americans housed in its Morton Crania Collection, put together in the 1800s by a white supremacist researcher.
As recently as last week, the MOVE remains appeared to be at Penn Museum, but a spokesperson for the museum said it gave the bones back to Princeton. At the New Jersey school, however, a spokesperson denied they were on university premises.
Okech, the Penn alum, said she remembered hearing about the MOVE work directly from museum anthropology curator Janet Monge, who collaborated with Mann and subsequently featured the bones in a publicly available teaching video.
Grad student VanJessica Gladney, 27, co-founded the Penn & Slavery Project.
Along with activists like Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, she was instrumental in pushing the university to acknowledge and repatriate the Morton Collection, and said she was riding high on that victory when she learned of the MOVE report.
“In a way, we are still talking about the era of enslavement,” Gladney said. “A lot of the problems…stem from the institution of slavery. So it feels like, once again, we’re seeing the tree born from the ground of white supremacy. Every time I look at it, it seems like it gets taller and thicker.”
Rev. Nicholas Young, a 25-year-old graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, helped push that institution to commit to $28 million in reparations for descendants of enslaved people. The commitment wasn’t even “a drop in the bucket compared to how much repenting work Princeton has to do,” Young said.
“So when I’m hearing about the ways in which these children, their remains, were treated and Princeton was involved,” Young continued, “I think that it goes back to the same conversation: You need to acknowledge, you need to invest in the community … financially.”
MOVE’s current members and supporters are calling for Penn to commit to some kind of reparations to make up for their handling of Tree and Delisha’s bones, according to Krystal Strong, a community organizer and professor at Penn’s education graduate school.
They’re also looking for the return of the remains, a formal apology and a full investigation, Strong posted on Twitter.
“So, after decades of police terrorism, state murder, and 40+ years political imprisonment,” Strong wrote, “surviving MOVE members… are now being made to endure continued re-traumatization and the abuse of their loved ones even in death.”
UPenn and Princeton have not responded to Billy Penn’s requests for additional comment.