VCU archaeologists in 1994 at the site of mid-19th century medical pit holding human remains. (Photo courtesy Shawn Utsey)
In February of this year, 10 Richmonders visited the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History where they were to see human remains discovered in 1994 in a mid-19th century well on the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus.
The bones, sorted, catalogued, wrapped in protective plastic and boxed, accounted for at least 44 adults and nine children, according to a Smithsonian report published in 2012. Most of the skeletons themselves were not intact and for that reason, gender and race could not be identified for all. Enough remained to learn that 17 were male and eight were female, and that 18 were black and two of European descent.
The bones showed signs they had been used by university anatomy students practicing dissection, amputation and autopsy procedures. Given the pre-Civil War date of the well, it is likely that many of the individuals had been enslaved. Given the laws against dissection of human bodies then, it is also likely that the remains had been stolen from their graves and sold to the school, though local oral history also tells of kidnapping and murder to supply the medical school. Graverobbing was the practice of the time, and not unique to Richmond.
The 10 entering the Smithsonian knew all this. With the exception of one, Joseph Jones, an anthropology professor, they were all laypeople — among them a funeral director, a community strategist, a VCU cafeteria worker, the former head of the city’s soon-to-be-opened new black history museum, and a former community health nurse working at VCU in community engagement.
They had, by this time, read the Smithsonian report and heard from numerous experts, scientists, as well as cultural and forensic anthropologists. They had attended a series of community consultations that VCU’s administration launched in 2014 to acknowledge wrongdoing in its illegal use of stolen cadavers, as well as in the cavalier manner in which they were disposed — and later removed. (A construction crew working on the foundation of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences building uncovered the well. VCU archaeologists, under orders from then-president Eugene Trani, hastily removed the bones – some so well preserved, skin and hair still clung to them — so as not to delay construction.) The remains had been in the custody of the Smithsonian, shielded from public view, for 22 years.
VCU administrators wanted community guidance on how best to study, memorialize and/or inter the bones. The 10, nominated by community members, were to take the recommendations, and research and guide the university. They were to speak as the symbolic descendants of those stolen from graves, turned into specimens, and then dumped in a pit, along with medical tools, clothing, shoes.
You can say the 10, known as the Family Representative Council, understood all this as they entered the museum, as they took the elevator to an upper floor, as they walked down a hall to a door beyond which some of the bones had been removed from their boxes and arranged on tables. But it is one thing to read about the remains, to see pictures of them, and it is another to behold them. In that beholding, they will tell you, came a moment of revelation, a clear recognition of what it is they were being called upon to do, what the university seeks to make right, and what the city itself must acknowledge.
On Saturday, June 4, after months of work together, after trips, not just to the Smithsonian, but also to Jamestown and New York City’s African Burial Ground, the Family Representative Council presented its draft recommendations to the public at another community consultation.
Family Representative Council members discuss their recommendations for the human remains found in the well on Saturday, June 4. (Photo by Patrick Kane, VCU)
The bones, the council said, should undergo further noninvasive study in an attempt to determine from where the individuals came, the environment in which they were living, and, if possible, whether their modern-day descendants can be determined. (This would require targeted DNA sample collection from volunteers under strict privacy protocols.) The university should determine whether more remains still rest beneath the Kontos Building and whether it is feasible to try to recover them.
A memorial should be built within or near the Kontos building and at the burial site, which, the council said, should be the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom or Evergreen Cemetery. That memorialization should include facial reconstruction of the individuals, when possible, for display in the Kontos Building. It also should include annual memorialization by VCU medical students prior to the start of their anatomy courses “to pay respect to those who are contributing and have contributed their remains for the benefit of their scientific learning.”
The council also suggested commissioning West African artisans to design and build the coffin boxes, and a public interment ceremony designed by funerary experts in African burial traditions.
You can read the full preliminary report and complete recommendations, as well as other documents, at the East Marshall Street Well Project website.
The council presented its recommendations in a public meeting attended by about 75 people at Martin Luther King Middle School. As with the other community consultations, much time was spent on small group discussions, allowing residents to offer their own thoughts, many of which emphasized the need to restore to the remains the dignity and humanity robbed from them.
It is impossible to hear such conversations and not be moved. More than one person wept, and the eyes of members of the family council welled with tears when speaking of their experiences.
“To say that we are acting as a symbolic family probably isn’t strong enough,” says Family Representative Council member Jen Early. “We really have encompassed the sense that this is our family that we are seeking to protect and honor and find a little bit of retribution for.”
It is impossible, too, not to see this discussion as part of larger one taking in place in Richmond as the city seeks to build a physical landscape that honestly reflects all of its history.
“There are a lot of overlapping concerns about what has been mutually polarizing in Richmond, and a lot of it stems from this horrible history that’s connected to a culture of how people have done business at the expense of human beings,” family council member Lillie A. Estes says. “We need to acknowledge that trauma that has revisited people over and over. There is no shame in acknowledging that trauma. Now, once we acknowledge it, we have to figure out what to do with it … We need to teach people the truth and move forward.”
Family Representative Council members outside the Egyptian building, where anatomy students in the mid-1800s practiced on stolen cadavers. 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)
The weight of this, the magnitude of what it means to acknowledge a painful past and to move forward from that, hits the family council viscerally on its visit to the Smithsonian back in February. When they walk through that door, not all are prepared. They thought they were dropping off their coats first. They didn’t expect to find skulls and jaw bones set out on tables for them. They did not know there would be box after box of bones. To the evident surprise of the forensic anthropologists present, several begin to weep.
“It was remarkably emotional,” says family council member Stacy L. Burrs. “To have them presented in a way that almost — you could almost see the life that was in them and had been drained from them.”
Council member Stephanie Smith puts it simply: “That’s when it became real to me.”
Family council member Christopher Rashad Green thinks, for the thousandth time: What if this were my mother? What if this were your father? What would it be like to bury them and then return to find to find the grave plundered and the body gone?
The 10 grieve in this room of bones. They ask the anthropologists what untold stories the remains might still hold. And then they recommit themselves to the day these 53 people are returned to Richmond, where their lives will be remembered, and, where, at last, they will be laid to rest.