Photo by Ash Daniel
The group acting as the symbolic descendants of the 53 people whose partial remains were found in a 19th-century Virginia Commonwealth University medical school well expects to have its recommendations for research, memorialization and reburial of the bones ready later this spring.
Joseph Jones, a College of William & Mary assistant professor of anthropology and co-chair of the Family Representative Council, says it is taking longer than anticipated for the 10-member council to finish its work. A preliminary timeline projected the recommendations would be ready by the end of last year.
“We’re asking questions such as, ‘What kind of study would be done?’ … questions around things like DNA testing, facial reconstruction and other modern techniques,” Jones says. “We are also looking at balancing that with the sensitivity of the community and what these people have already gone through.”
A construction crew preparing the foundation of VCU’s Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences building between East Broad and Marshall streets uncovered the pre-Civil War medical pit in April 1994. “Into the Light,” a September 2015 Richmond magazine story, for the first time reported the circumstances surrounding the disinterment. Forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institute, where the bones have been stored for nearly 20 years, identified partial remains of at least 44 adults and nine children. Many were of African or African-American descent. Given the era, researchers believe some were likely enslaved and their bodies stolen from nearby cemeteries and sold to the medical school for dissection, amputation and anatomical research.
VCU’s administration held several public meetings last year to educate Richmond-area residents about what happened, to seek guidance on next steps, and, with community input, select 10 symbolic family members to act on behalf of the disinterred individuals. Besides Jones, the group includes the former CEO of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, a licensed funeral director, a former community-health nurse and a community strategist.
“We’re the symbolic family and we really have tried to establish this as a family unit,” Jones says. “We are varied in terms of our background … but expertise comes from all corners.”
Jones says the family council has heard from geneticists, archaeologists and anthropologists. It also plans to travel to the Smithsonian to view the remains. The council first will submit its recommendations to VCU President Michael Rao and then present them to the public.