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MOVE members gathered on Monday across from Malcolm X Park to address reports the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University have been in possession of remains thought to belong to children killed in the 1985 police bombing of the MOVE’s West Philadelphia compound.
The family of those children were unaware researchers had held onto the remains for decades, MOVE members said.
“None of our phones have rung. They only do what they are pressured to do,” Janine Africa said about the Ivy League universities, adding that nothing would make up for the loss of life. “They can’t give us our children. Our children are gone.”
Reports of the remains’ existence surfaced last week. Since then, Princeton has taken down an online teaching video that featured some of the bones, and the retired researcher who was given the remains for analysis in the ’80s told an education reporter he was planning to return them to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.
“We never knew anything about the remains of our family. Nothing. We were in jail,” said Janet Africa, who was released last year after 40 years behind bars as one of the “MOVE 9” convicted in 1978 as the city battled the Black liberation group.
“They denied us the right of putting our family where they were supposed to be,” Janet continued. “Y’all wanna do something? Apologize and never let it happen again?” The city apologized just last year, she said, and now MOVE has learned about this.
Just as the Monday press conference was about to start, UPenn did issue an apology, posting online that the university and museum were apologizing “to the Africa family and to our community for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.”
The 1985 airstrike, which officials at the time said was an attempt to evict MOVE from its compound on Osage Avenue, took at least 11 lives, including five children, when the city allowed the ensuing fire to raze a block to the ground.
“Now they wanna come some 36 years later saying they got the remains of our children? You go to hell with that bullshit,” said Consuela Africa, who broke down sobbing. Her daughter Tree is thought to be one of the victims whose remains are in question.
Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods, who started in April as the first Black person to lead the museum in its 134-year history, told university colleagues last week he was trying to give the remains back, according to an email obtained by Billy Penn.
“Please do know that it is my goal to return the remains as quickly as possible to the Africa family,” Woods wrote, “and we are seeking a respectful and consultative means of doing this.”
But it’s not clear Penn actually has the remains. In statements last week, the museum said it sent them back to a retired forensic anthropologist named Alan Mann “at Princeton.” It turns out the transfer was made just days before news broke the university was still in possession of them, according to the Inquirer.
Now Mann is working on plans to return “the upper end of a thigh bone and a small part of one pelvic bone” to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, according to Inside Higher Education.
Mann, 81, was one of the original researchers tasked by the city with helping identify the MOVE bombing remains three decades ago. He has not responded to Billy Penn’s requests for comment, and was not available during an in-person visit, but he told Inside Higher Ed he was “sorry to learn that there is a perception that what I did with the MOVE human remains was wrong.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office has not been in contact with Dr. Mann, a spokesperson told Billy Penn, but said that if “remains were returned to our office, we would attempt to locate next of kin to claim them.”
Online course suspended, demonstration planned
Mayor Jim Kenney indicated last week he wanted to work with the Africa family. “Any future placement of these remains should be determined in concert with the victims’ families,” Kenney said in an emailed statement, adding that he was directing staff to review any related internal records.
Asked Monday if they would engage with officials or the university to bury the remains, should they be returned, Janet and Janine Africa said they weren’t ready to answer that question.
MOVE members said they’d rather officials focus on releasing Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist who began covering the organization four decades ago, and is now on death row. Supporters marched for Abu-Jamal’s release over the weekend, on the occasion of his 67th birthday.
Along with Black Lives Matter and other groups, MOVE is planning a protest Wednesday at the Penn Museum to ask for “repatriation and reparations.” An online petition outlines specific demands.
Local activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who was instrumental in getting Penn Museum to repatriate its controversial Morton Collection, was the first to call for reparations. “The museum must make a public, specific apology with plans for restitution to the MOVE family for this egregious act,” they wrote in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed.
Activists are also calling for the firing of Janet Monge, curator of the museum’s physical anthropology section. Monge recently featured some of the remains in a teaching video recorded for Princeton, where she was an associate professor.
The video is no longer available for public viewing. “Princeton decided to suspend the course on Friday, April 23,” Arunav Sinha, a communications VP at online learning platform Coursera, told Billy Penn.
Anyone who already registered for the connected course can still access the video, however, which displays bones thought to have belonged to 14-year-old Tree Africa.
Judith Weisenfeld, chair of Princeton’s religion department, said the use of the remains in an online teaching video was “unacceptable.”
“Given the history of commodification of, medical experimentation on, and violence acted upon Black people across American history,” Weisenfeld said, “this case calls for commitment to owning the contributions of institutions … to ‘race science’ and its legacies and the violent practices they have served to justify.”
Woods, the new Penn Museum director, made a similar suggestion in an internal email sent last Thursday. “[W]e recognize the need for restorative justice as our city strives to heal from this,” he wrote.
To what address did Penn send the remains? Princeton says they are not on university premises — and neither is the professor. “Dr. Mann is no longer teaching at Princeton and has not been for some years,” a spokesperson said.
Tree’s remains were previously thought to have been buried alongside those of her sister Netta, according to a 1986 Associated Press article, after being returned to their uncle, Isaac Dotson. It’s possible that the family was given only a partial set of remains — it wasn’t easy for examiners to find and identify body parts in the rubble, according to letters exchanged by city researchers at the time.
According to documents from the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, Mann originally investigated the remains as a consulting forensic anthropologist in the ’80s, when he was employed by Penn. When he transferred to Princeton in 2001, he reportedly took the remains with him, ostensibly to keep analyzing them.
Mike Africa Jr. was a child when his family’s home was bombed. Noting that he’s spent his whole life fighting to get his family out of jail, on Monday he expressed disappointment and hurt.
“I could not have imagined that 36 years later they would be displaying our family” Africa Jr. said, “as if they’re some dinosaur relics that they dug up.”
“People wanna know what we want?” asked Janine Africa. She listed the names of all 11 members of MOVE killed on that May 13, saying “We want them back. If you can’t give us that, you can’t give us nothing.”