They come for the bodies at night.
With their shovels and lookouts and wagons, the resurrectionists hit the cemeteries of free and enslaved blacks, of the poor and imprisoned, robbing the graves of the freshly dead. The medical school on the hill above Shockoe Valley will pay by the body, and if it doesn’t need them, there is always the college in Charlottesville. A ceaseless appetite for human cadavers exists. The students dissect and amputate, perfecting their knowledge of anatomy, and when they are done, the staff discards what is left in a brick well behind the Richmond school.
So the bones lie. They would have remained as the anatomy department intended — hidden — had there not been a demand more than a century later for a new medical sciences building. During the construction, workers will expose the well and a Virginia Commonwealth University police chief will call the college’s Archaeological Research Center, where Chris Egghart will pick up the phone.
It is the evening of Tuesday, April 26, 1994. The chief is talking fast.
VCU archaeologists examine the 19th-century well holding human remains in April 1994. (Photo courtesy Shawn Utsey)
“He says something about ‘bodies’ and ‘excavation for the new medical center’ and ‘the medical examiner’ and I couldn’t follow what he was saying, so I said, ‘I’ll meet you down there,’ ” Egghart recalls.
VCU President Eugene Trani, in the fourth year of his 19-year tenure, already is building his legacy, leading a massive physical and academic expansion of the university, and transforming the school into a powerful economic enterprise. A construction crew is digging the foundation of the $23.5 million Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences building between East Broad and Marshall streets, next to the historic Egyptian Building, where the long-ago medical students practiced. The police chief leads Egghart about 25 feet below street level, further disorienting the archaeologist. What kind of find would be down that deep?
“It’s a huge construction site, a half block, maybe a block,” Egghart says, “and he takes me to one spot and shows me, and as soon as I saw the ring of bricks, I knew what it was: the bottom of a well. You could see bones all jumbled up.”
Egghart’s supervisor and founder of VCU’s Archaeological Research Center, Dan Mouer, arrives at the site the next day. “It wasn’t just bones,” Mouer says. “There was clothing and hair and even some soft tissue and so forth. They’d been very well preserved. It was a grisly scene, to tell you the truth. I don’t think any of us who were down there that day will forget it.”
Mouer and the others date the well as 19th century and suspect it holds what was left of cadavers used by medical students at the former Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College and by the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU Medical Center), which took its place in the Egyptian Building.
Mouer tells the university’s powers-that-be that state law governs the disturbance of human remains that clearly have been purposefully buried. Another law regulates archaeological excavation of those remains. Removal generally requires a permit from the state Department of Historic Resources. It requires public notice and plans for excavation. It is not a quick process.
Without excavation and analysis, it’s not clear what the well holds. It could be medical waste, the administration tells the state archaeologist, perhaps the amputated limbs of Civil War soldiers. The question becomes moot. The university’s legal counsel turns to a former Virginia attorney general’s opinion that dismisses the need for a permit and clears the way for construction. (See “Did VCU Break the Law?” below.)
Mouer gets a phone call that Saturday morning from a medical campus administrator. You have until Monday to clear out what you can, the administrator says. Mouer, Egghart and Rob Ryder, co-director of the Archaeological Research Center, head to the site thinking they’d do prep work and then get an emergency state permit first thing Monday.
All three recall Trani showing up Sunday. ”He signals for me to come up,” Mouer says, “and he says, ‘This is not going to be my problem. Get rid of this. You have until Monday.’ ”
They are an archaeological crew from a grant-funded research center led by two untenured faculty members, Ryder says. They are all too conscious that their staff depends upon them for their livelihoods. They do what they are told.
Trani declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an emailed statement that he followed the advice of the university’s legal counsel in proceeding with construction.
Egghart retrieves his fishing waders and steps into four feet of human remains and shoes and old medical instruments and goo. The others reach into the muck, and start pulling out whatever they can find. More than two decades later, they will all use the same word to describe what they are doing: “horrifying.”
On Monday, the archaeologists comb through backfill near the well, a macabre treasure hunt for anything they might have missed. Construction crews tie rebar around them. At day’s end, six days after its discovery, the well is sealed.
Mouer and his team haul the bones back to the research center, where they clean and photograph them. Then, lacking the funding to do anything more, they send them to the Smithsonian Institution for further research. Seventeen years of silence pass.
A ‘Descendant Community’
Based on bone counts … a minimum of 44 adults (individuals 15 years and older) and nine children (ages 14 years and younger) are represented ... Most adult remains were males aged 35 years or older. Fifty bones or bone “sets” ... show evidence of intentional sectioning
consistent with training in surgical procedures including amputations and autopsy. In most cases, the number and pattern of cuts and the absence of pathology on the bones provides evidence for surgical training and dissection. … A majority of the remains are identified as African or African-American, but not exclusively.
— Douglas Owsley and Karin Bruwelheide, Smithsonian Institution, June 2012.
In April, VCU launched an extraordinary series of public conversations to tell Richmond the story of the bones, which are still at the Smithsonian. The university’s goal, met with both praise and skepticism, is to allow the African-American community to guide the manner in which these individuals, denied their humanity in life and in death, should be memorialized.
Four “community consultations” have taken place. A fifth is scheduled for later this year. They have provoked wide-ranging discussions of history, science, race relations and institutional arrogance in an atmosphere that can feel like a classroom one moment and a confessional the next. Anger, sorrow and determination all have been on display as the university seeks to right past wrongs with an African-American community that has a deep skepticism of powerful white institutions in general, and VCU in particular.
“VCU has a history of paving over African-American history, literally paving over history,” says Shawn Utsey, a VCU professor of psychology who is a member of the East Marshall Street Well Project planning committee. “The well was a garbage pit, and most of the people dumped in it were African-American. This is Black Lives Matter before the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s what this is really about: the humanity of people. The humanity and dignity of people, even in death.”
The Smithsonian study, released in June 2012, counted 53 individuals, some represented by no more than a bone or two. For that reason, anthropologists only could determine that 17 were male and eight female. Eighteen were black; two were of European descent. A comparative analysis of the skulls suggested that some of the individuals had African origins with bone structure similar to that of the Zulu. Since the well dated to before the Civil War, it is likely that many of the individuals had been enslaved.
A shoe found in the well. (Photo courtesy Shawn Utsey)
Given the length of time and depth of silence between the discovery of the bones and the Smithsonian analysis, it’s not surprising that many who attended the community consultations either never had heard of the discovery or had only a vague recollection of it. Initial attendance was sparse. But the numbers grew and at the most recent gathering in late May, about 100 people turned out, among them doctors, teachers, college students, archaeologists, community activists, elders, strategists, museum staffers and clergy.
At each of the consultations, scholars and scientists have made presentations on such topics as 19th-century medical practices, advances in DNA testing, local burial grounds and the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City. After each, the university posted summaries of the meetings, along with any relevant reports, on the East Marshall Street Well Project website (emsw.vcu.edu).
All of this discussion moved toward one task: the selection of a symbolic family, a descendant community, known as the Family Representative Council. This council will decide how best to memorialize the remains. In late July, the well project’s planning committee of archaeologists, academicians, university higher-ups, activists and elected officials selected 10 people from a pool of community nominations. Among them are Stacy Burrs, former CEO of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; Lillie A. Estes, longtime community strategist; Joseph Jones, assistant professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary; Rhonda Keyes Pleasants, licensed funeral director and embalmer, and Jen Early, a former community-health nurse and currently a doctoral candidate in VCU’s Department of Health Administration.
The Family Representative Council is now deciding how the remains in the well should be memorialized. From left: Crystal Noakes, Christopher Green, Jen Early, Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor, Stacy Burrs, Lillie A. Estes, Joseph Jones. Not pictured: Carmen Foster, Rhonda Keyes Pleasants and Stephanie Smith. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Over the last several weeks, the family council has been weighing the profound questions that have marked this process from the beginning: How should we honor the humanity of these individuals? How should we recognize their contributions to medical science? How will the community balance the desire to know more about who they were through further scientific study if social and cultural traditions demand only that they be reinterred and left in peace? The council is expected to have its draft recommendations to VCU administrators later this fall.
In November 2014, VCU held a ceremony that opened the dialogue between university and community. The Rev. J. Eli Burke, co-chair of the East Marshall Street Well Project’s planning committee and nonvoting co-chair of the family council, described the council’s relationship to the people whose remains were robbed from their graves, used without consent and then dumped as medical waste.
“We are called to remember a people whose names we don’t know, but they are not strangers to us; they are us,” Burke said. “We do know they had families all those years ago, We do know someone cared for them. We don’t know if their descendants are now our neighbors, so we stand in as their children.”
By the late 1830s, Richmond had emerged as a growing industrial and manufacturing city featuring iron works, flour mills, tobacco factories and a significant slave trade. Physically demanding jobs often led to early death through exhaustion or accident. Richmond’s population of 20,000 individuals, including 7,500 slaves and 1,900 free blacks, could satisfy the clinical requirements of a medical school. While not endorsing the robbing of graves, the [Medical Department of Hampden-Sydney College, in 1853] noted: “from the peculiarity of our institutions, material for dissection can be obtained in abundance, and we believe are not surpassed if equaled by any city in our country.”
—Jodi L. Koste, Virginia Commonwealth University, Smithsonian report, June 2012.
In the early- and mid-19th century, medical schools that wanted bodies for dissection had no legal options for getting them. It wasn’t until 1884 that unclaimed bodies of prisoners and paupers became available in Virginia. Before then, medical schools across the nation often turned to a middleman, a “resurrectionist,” to rob graves for a fee. In Richmond, the potter’s field and Negro burial grounds were frequent targets, VCU archivist Jodi Koste writes in the Smithsonian report on the remains found in the well.
“These burial grounds and the poorhouse were just over a mile from MCV. The school strategically placed two medical students at the almshouse in order to collect anatomical materials.” Dissection of human cadavers was illegal in antebellum Virginia, Koste says, “but public officials generally ignored those engaged in grave-robbing activities, particularly when slaves or free blacks were the target.”
All those illegally procured remains had to go somewhere. Koste’s research leads her to believe that sometime after 1848, the faculty identified a well in which to dispose of the bodies, and that well may have been capped in 1860. She estimates that at least 18 to 24 cadavers were needed each term from 1844 to 1860. What happened to bodies after students were done with them between 1860 and 1884? “We just don’t know for sure,” she says.
Richmond’s poor and its black community were aware of the body snatching, which, Koste says, probably went on until the turn of the century. The community was also certain that anatomists did not limit themselves to bodies stolen from cemeteries, but turned a blind eye to more nefarious methods of procurement.
In Utsey’s 2011 documentary, Until the Well Runs Dry, elderly Richmonders recall passed-down stories that warned against going near MCV at night.
This fear is no historical artifact, Utsey notes. It is deep and abiding and has been repeatedly reinforced, from the Tuskegee syphilis trials to the stolen cells of Henrietta Lacks. To this day, he and others say, this history adversely affects the relationship between the African-American and medical communities.
University administrators and community members credit Utsey with ending the silence that surrounded the bones. While working on his documentary in 2011, Utsey asked the Smithsonian what had been done with the remains and artifacts found in the well 17 years earlier.
“I asked for a report and there was no report. Nothing had been done. When I met with [VCU President Michael] Rao, I asked him, ‘Where is the report?’”
Utsey told Rao, then two years on the job, that he was working on a documentary about the once-common practice of grave robbing for medical cadavers.
“And that, really, for this administration was the first introduction to this issue,” says Kevin Allison, Rao’s senior assistant, who is a liaison to the well project’s planning committee.
The plan in 1994 was for one of Mouer’s students to help conduct a baseline analysis of the remains for her dissertation, but life intervened, and the student was unable to follow through on the project, says Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley, who eventually conducted that analysis along with colleague Karin Bruwelheide.
He says sometime in the spring/summer of 2011, a now-retired university planner asked him to complete a basic analysis. That report, published in June 2012, “wasn’t designed to take into account questions about the lives of the individuals in terms of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What was your life like?’ ” Owsley says.
Still, the bones told stories of individuals who began hard physical labor in childhood, who suffered from arthritis and abscessed gums and poor diets. They told of broken noses and head wounds. The grooves in the teeth of one individual, an older man, revealed that he smoked a pipe and that he favored resting it in the left corner of his mouth.
When I consider the long history of this institution, I am, of course, very proud of so many things, including the scientific and medical advances that have been made on this campus that have saved the lives of countless people. However, we are not proud of the circumstances surrounding these human remains. The university acknowledges its responsibility for the treatment of these human remains and we are affording them the respect and dignity they so well deserve. We cannot change the past. We can do together what is needed to move forward by demonstrating these shared commitments, because what defines us as a university, as individuals, and as a community is how we are transformed by our past, not how we are constrained by it. I commit to you today that the legacy of these human beings will not be that they were buried in a well and forgotten. It will be that they inspired us to move forward together.
—VCU President Michael Rao, opening ceremony for the East Marshall Street Well Project, Nov. 19, 2014
During the fourth and most recent community consultation, held in late May at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, community members sit at a dozen or so tables. Talk turns toward how the remains should be memorialized.
“Due to the injustices that so many thousands of slaves and free blacks endured, we owe them, as a culture now, to correct that,” says the Rev. Levy Armwood Jr., pastor of Richmond’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. “How we do that remains to be seen.”
Others at his table speak: “There is a tremendous injustice here and it continues to this day. We need to make this as much about a healing of the trauma that has been passed down.”
“Has there been a formal apology from VCU?”
“VCU has acknowledged responsibility, that’s why we’re here.”
“Yes, but should there be a formal apology?”
“Who are they apologizing to?”
The pastor interjects. “You ask to whom the apology should be made. I feel to the spirits and souls of those who died. They may not hear it, but the appropriate thing is to make some sort of restitution. I think that’s where we start.”
Don Edwards, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice and Sustainability Associates, has been guiding these conversations. Edwards helped mediate a similar — albeit much larger — process at New York City’s African Burial Ground National Monument.
In 1991, construction crews working on a new federal building in Lower Manhattan uncovered the graves of more than 400 free and enslaved people of African descent buried in the 17th and 18th centuries. Edwards says the discussion he guided there was more volatile, in part because it was happening in real time. People could see the excavation, they could see the bones and they wanted a say in what became of them.
Which is not to say strong emotions haven’t been shown here. “Can you imagine finding your loved one’s grave desecrated?” asks Stephanie Smith, a member of the family council. “We are never going to get these individuals back to their families. We are never going to know who they are, but we owe it to them to make sure they are honored.”
The university hired Michael Blakey, a bioanthropologist at the College of William & Mary, as a consultant on the well project. Blakey also worked on New York City’s African Burial Ground, where he advocated for the creation of a descendant community and for the ceding of decisions to that community. To Blakey, the right of descendants, symbolic or otherwise, to determine the disposition of their ancestors is a matter of ethical science.
“This is about the right of human beings to be human beings, because this is what we do: We memorialize our dead,” he says. “It is the definitive aspect of our species.”
But humans are also curious and interested in scientific study, Blakey says, and the experience of the African Burial Ground proved “that if we rely on the descendant community to determine what it thinks is important, research or not, it is possible to have both.”
Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist, suggests reburying some of the individuals, perhaps among the 19 whose skeletons are nearly intact. Other remains could be held for ongoing study.
The bones are so well preserved, he says, analyses could reveal origins, diet and environmental conditions, as well as how urban life differed from rural among 19th-century African-Americans.
“It would be a shame if the story ended with the well,” the Smithsonian’s Bruwelheide says. “The well tells you about the operations of the medical school and that’s important, but the story is who these people were, not how they were treated after they died.”
To study or not, to rebury all or some, “there is no monolithic position on any of these things, except that people want the acknowledgment of their humanity,” says planning committee member Ana Edwards, chairwoman of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality’s Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.
Family council member Crystal Noakes went to the first community consultation in April not knowing anything about the discovery of the well. Then she went to the second, third and fourth meetings, each time buffeted by emotion: surprise, astonishment, anger “and, yet, joy in the sense of peace that was going to come about.” To be named now as a symbolic descendant is both a great privilege and great responsibility, she says.
“The first question I asked myself is, ‘How do you represent individuals who have been treated this way, family members who have been treated this way?’ You ask yourself, is it even possible?” she says. “Then I began to think yes, it is, because I felt their spirits. I felt a pull to be part of something so significant for the African-American community.
“I don’t know if it will bring closure, but to be a part of honoring those who have been dishonored, if I can represent them, I am representing my father, my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great-grandmothers and fathers. I am representing my family.”
Editor’s note: News Editor Tina Griego’s husband is an assistant professor in VCU’s English department.
Did VCU Break the Law?
Virginia burial law and regulations governing archaeological excavation of human remains state that a Department of Historic Resources permit is required for “archaeological recovery of all human skeletal remains and associated artifacts from any unmarked grave, regardless of the age of the burial or archaeological site or ownership of property.”
In addition, general cemetery protection laws, notably the Violation of Sepulchre statute, make it “a felony to remove human remains from a grave without a court order or appropriate permit.”
Several archaeologists interviewed for this story, including the Smithsonian Institution forensic archaeologists who conducted the baseline study of the remains, said VCU’s disinterment in 1994 would be illegal now and was illegal then.
Not necessarily, says Catherine Slusser, who was the state archaeologist at the Department of Historic Resources at the time the bones were discovered.
“The laws say ‘graves.’ This well situation was iffy from the start because it wasn’t a grave,” she says. “Whether this could be considered an intentional burial based upon what appeared to be, at that point, miscellaneous body parts, and whether the Violation of Sepulchre Law or the permit requirement applied, was a question raised from the get-go.”
The grave-or-not debate aside, she says, the university’s position was strengthened by a 1980 Virginia attorney general’s opinion. At the time, the then-president of the College of William & Mary wanted to know whether the college had to obtain a permit from the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission before proceeding with construction of a waste treatment facility at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
In December 1980, Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman issued an opinion saying that “as a general rule, the Commonwealth and its agencies are not subject to statutory provisions unless the General Assembly has expressly provided.” That is, one state agency could not tell another what to do unless the General Assembly explicitly stated that it could.
VCU was a state agency taking action on its own land using its own archaeologists, so it was free to proceed under Coleman’s opinion, Slusser says. In fact, she says, that opinion would have allowed the university to bulldoze the site “without any archaeology being done and we would have never known that this well represented what we now consider a heinous practice that was done by medical schools around the world.”
VCU’s former president, Eugene Trani, declined to discuss his thinking at the time. In a statement sent by email, he said only that the Office of University Counsel in 1994 “provided legal advice based upon precedent for such excavation. I followed that advice.”
The university would not proceed today without full input from the state Department of Historic Resources, says Kevin Allison, senior assistant to VCU President Michael Rao. But Virginia laws covering human remains “are fairly narrow and fairly specific,” Slusser says, and so while it might not happen again, it could.
“Yes,” she says. “It absolutely could happen today.”