Grandison Harris, the Gullah slave made to steal freshly-buried Black corpses for study

Mildred Europa Taylor Aug 15, 2020 at 12:00pm

August 15, 2020 at 12:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

August 15, 2020 at 12:00 pm | History

Mt. Zion Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington DC. Pic credit: Daily JStore

Human dissection was, for the most part of the 19th century, illegal in many parts of the United States (well, unless the cadaver was from an executed criminal). This made it difficult for medical students to learn human anatomy, hence, colleges had to resort to the secret and illegal practice of grave robbing.

This was usually carried out by people known as body snatchers who were mostly enslaved men, employees, or even students of the colleges.

Such was the case in the Old Medical College Building in Georgia, the former home of the Medical College of Georgia. Since dissection of bodies was illegal until 1887, school authorities relied on bodies from body snatchers and even kept one full-time in their apartment, according to Atlas Obscura.

Grandison Harris, a 36-year-old Gullah slave who was purchased by the medical college in a slave auction in 1852 in Charleston, South Carolina, was the main person behind grave robbing for the school.

It was against the law to teach slaves to read or write, but the doctors taught Harris how to read and write and he sat in on anatomy classes because that would be very essential for his role. Owned by the entire faculty of the school, Harris worked as a porter, janitor, teaching assistant and a body snatcher. With the education given to him, Harris would read the obituaries and other death notices in newspapers to find out who had died and when they would be buried.

Augusta’s Cedar Grove Cemetery was the main cemetery for black people at the time and Harris’ grim mission was to rob graves at the Cemetery and bring bodies back to the school.

Harris would, late at night, take his cart, sack and shovel. “He would quietly go into the cemetery and find the grave. He would look and remember how everything was and then dig down to the body. If the body was in a casket, Grandison would break into the end of the casket. Then with a firm grip, and strong-arms he would pull the body out. He would then put the body into a bag and load it on his cart. Grandison Harris would then put everything back on the grave, in its original position. People could not tell the grave had been tampered with. At that time, he would roll the cart back to the Medical College on Telfair Street. The bodies would be dissected and used to teach the students about the human body,” writes augustagahistory.com.

Security was not tight at the Cedar Grove Cemetery as it was mainly for poor Black people who were interred in “flimsy coffins.” Becoming known as the “Resurrection Man,” the medical school used Harris to get cadavers for the students to dissect them throughout his period at the facility. Even when Georgia passed a law in 1887 to give medical colleges legal cadavers, Harris had to continue robbing the graves of Black communities as demand excelled supply.

Harris was loved by students at the medical college as he continued to do their dirty work, a crime which authorities ignored even when Black residents of Augusta found out and almost rioted at the school premises. Becoming powerful and often seen in “proper gentleman’s clothing,” Harris was a member of prominent masonic society the Colored Knights of Pythias and usually organized parties for the elite blacks in Augusta.

For someone who was never reprimanded for a morbid job like grave robbing, local Blacks felt uncomfortable around him.

In the 1997 book Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training, J. Phillip Waring, retired administrator of the Urban League, said “[Local blacks] feared him because they did not know who he was going to dig up next… he was feared in the, I don’t want to say supernatural, but anyone who goes out and digs up bodies and gets away with it and makes money and the medical college promoted him and what have you … what kind of person was this?”

As Harris aged, his son George took on his role though not as students of the school wanted. Harris later passed away in 1911 of heart failure at 95 but not without returning to the school for a lecture in 1908. Harris was buried in Cedar Grove, the same cemetery he used to rob but it’s not known where his body lies as all of the cemetery’s records were destroyed when the Savannah River overflowed in 1929, according to the Smithsonian.

It would take another 60 years for the dark history of grave robbing to be resurrected when construction workers in 1989 found 10,000 bones buried in a basement under the dirt in an old building in Augusta. This building turned out to be the former home of the Medical College of Georgia where Harris had worked.

According to authorities, 350 to 450 people, mostly African Americans, were buried there. Some of the bones had specimen numbers written on them. The workers also found a large wooden vat holding dozens of bones while another vat held body parts still preserved in whiskey.

It is reported that when the students dissected the bodies, they were buried in the college building and lime was used to cut down the smell. In 1998, those bones found in the basement were finally buried in Cedar Grove.

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