History

Penn Museum buries remains of 19 Black people whose bones were used in research, sparks argument

The University of Pennsylvania conducted a historic memorial service on Saturday to bury the remains of 19 black individuals whose skulls were used in a racist scientific research project in the early 19th century.

The unethical research, led by physician Samuel G. Morton in the 1830s, aimed to support white supremacist ideas by falsely asserting that black people constituted a distinct race from white people. The skulls were unethically collected from institutions housing poor and mentally ill black individuals, according to the New York Post.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has displayed body parts from unknown and unconsenting subjects since 1966. University officials say they are now addressing this historical injustice through reparation efforts, aiming to right past wrongs.

However, some local activists have criticized the university for hastily making burial plans without identifying the remains and without seeking community input. But, the museum’s director, Christopher Woods, said repatriation is essential to the museum’s responsibilities to its public.

He explained that they opted for an above-ground burial for the 19 individuals to facilitate potential identification. The mausoleums chosen for this purpose are designed to be fully reversible if circumstances change.

However, local activists argue that the decision to bury the remains in Eden Cemetery, a historic black cemetery in Darby, Pennsylvania, was made without community input. On the other hand, some researchers dispute the notion that the identities of the individuals from Philadelphia were lost.

“They never did any research themselves on who these people were, they took Morton’s word for it,” said Lyra Monteiro, an anthropological archaeologist professor at Rutgers University. “The people who aren’t even willing to do the research should not be doing this.”

Monteiro, utilizing the city’s public archives, discovered that one of the men had a Native American mother, which means the remains needed to be repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The university temporarily removed this set of remains for assessment.

However, the university proceeded to bury the other sets of remains last weekend, away from public view, which angered Monteiro and others. Members of the Black Philadelphians Descendant Community Group, comprised of individuals identifying as descendants of the 19 individuals, said they were devastated and hurt that they were sidelined in the burial of the remains.

“In light of this new information, they are taking time to process and consider how best to honor their ancestors at a future time,” the group said.

The collection of remains, some used in teaching as recently as 2020, was unethically gathered in the 1830s. Morton, a medical professor in Philadelphia during that period, amassed at least 900 crania, influencing the training of most doctors at the time. Critics argue that Morton’s actions fueled medical racism, leaving a lasting impact still evident today.

“Medical racism can really exist behind that,” Monteiro said. “His ideas became part of how medical students were trained.”

But, the university has justified its actions.

“To balance prioritizing the human dignity of the individuals with conservation due diligence and the logistical requirements of Historic Eden Cemetery, laying to rest the 19 Black Philadelphians was scheduled ahead of the interfaith ceremony and blessing,” it said.

The University of Pennsylvania still possesses over 300 Native American remains in the Morton Cranial Collection, awaiting repatriation under federal law.

This development coincides with the closure of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History’s Native American exhibits, mandated by a recent White House-approved regulation to expedite the repatriation process under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

As a result, nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space will be off-limits to visitors.

Stephen Nartey

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