Struggle targets elite universities over theft of MOVE bombing victims’ remains

Protesters have taken to the streets in Philadelphia as outrage spreads across the city and the country over the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University’s theft of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, members of the MOVE organization who were murdered in the infamous May 13, 1985, bombing.

Their remains were stolen from the site of the bombing by Penn Anthropologist Alan Mann after he was hired by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner to provide specialist advice and identify the children’s remains. Mann has since then been in possession of the bones and has transported them to Princeton from Penn when he transferred.  

The remains have been used as “case studies” in an anthropology course called “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology” taught by Janet Monge at Penn and Princeton with almost 5,000 enrolled students.  

On May 13, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped two one-pound incendiary bombs on the roof of 6221 Osage Ave. in the Cobbs Creeks neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The explosion resulted in over sixty homes being destroyed spanning over three city blocks. Only two residents were able to escape the fire, leaving eleven more, including five children aged seven to 14, to perish. Firefighters and police officers stood by with orders not to intervene after Police Chief Gregore Sambor instructed them to “let the fire burn.” The target of this blatant criminal act was the MOVE family.  

The house on Osage served as the home of the MOVE family, whose beliefs were rooted in respect and care for nature, sustainability and Black liberation. Founded in 1972 by John Africa, the MOVE family found themselves in the crosshair of violent state repression at the hands of Philadelphia’s notoriously racist mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department.

Thirty-six years later no city or police officials have been held accountable for the bombing. 

This is far from the first time that Black people’s remains have been grotesquely mistreated supposedly for the sake of science. Many advances in modern medicine in the United States were achieved by brutal medical treatment and experimentation not only on the dead, but on living Black people. Since 1619 and the first arrival of enslaved Africans, medicine relied on Black subjects for “anatomical material.” Doctors even went so far as to recruit Black people as “resurrectionists” who were tasked with the theft of freshy buried Black remains to be dissected, displayed and studied. Marion James Sims, often referred to as the “Father of Gynecology,” heavily documented his invasive experiments on enslaved women and how it affected their ability to perform forced physical labor. More recently, 144 incarcerated women were unknowingly sterilized between 2006 and 2010, 24% of whom were Black. 

In W. E. B. Dubois’ famous work The Philadelphia Negro (1899), he presented foundational insights on racial inequalities in medicine that differed from the popular eugenic theories about the biological inferiority of Black people. Instead, he highlighted the political, environmental and socioeconomic impacts that contributed to health. While the scientific research field in the United States is marked by long-standing racist practices, it is imperative that we continuously challenge these notions that racial differences are concrete indicators in terms of biological and physiological distinctions.  

Change can only come from the struggle against racist, white supremacist practices in every corner of society. Institutions like Penn and Princeton that stubbornly continue racist practices need to be held accountable.

The MOVE family has been clear with their demands and will accept nothing less:

  1. The immediate return of Tree and Delisha Africa 
  2. Full investigation of Penn and Princeton’s role in the unethical possession of their remains 
  3. Fire Penn faculty and curator Janet Monge
  4. A formal apology from Penn and Princeton
  5. Reparations for these atrocities

To further support the MOVE family, please sign the petition supporting their demands.

Contact Penn and Princeton expressing your outrage: 

Penn Museum Director: 

Princeton University President: