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The Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (courtesy the Penn Museum)

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The Penn Museum in Philadelphia apologized for holding the remains of victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing for decades and vowed to act to return them to the family’s descendants. However, the museum has not yet addressed the demands of MOVE members and local activists to terminate Janet Monge, a curator at the museum who was in charge of the remains since 2016 and used them as teaching materials in a public online forensics course.

The police bombing of a West Philadelphia compound that hosted members of the Black liberation group MOVE in 1985 killed 11 people, among them five children. The children who lost their lives in the bombing and ensuing fires were: Tree Africa (14), Netta Africa (12), Delisha Africa (13), Little Phil Africa (12), and Tomasa Africa (9). The remaining six adults were Rhonda Africa, Teresa Africa, Frank Africa, Raymond Africa, Conrad Africa, and John Africa.

In a statement yesterday, April 26, the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologized to the Africa family and to Philadelphia’s Black community for “allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.”

“We understand the importance of reuniting the remains with the family, and we are working now to find a respectful, consultative resolution,” the statement said, acknowledging the “emotional distress” caused to the community by the recent revelations.

Since 1985, the remains of at least one victim have been moved back and forth from the Penn Museum to Princeton University without the family’s knowledge. A 1985 investigation committee that failed to identify the remains — a pelvic bone and part of a femur — handed them over to Alan Mann, a Penn professor and a curator at the Penn Museum, for a forensic examination. But in 2001, Mann transferred to Princeton, taking the remains with him. In 2016, the bones were returned to Penn to be studied with a newly acquired identification technology, under Monge’s supervision. The remains were never officially identified.

The current location of the remains is unclear: The museum previously claimed that it returned the bones to Mann on April 17, but in an interview this week with the Philadelphia Inquirer, the retired anthropologist denied ever receiving them back.

“I would’ve given them back years ago, if anyone had asked me,” Mann told the Inquirer. “There’s absolutely no reason for us to keep them. They should be given back.”

The Penn Museum declined to comment on the whereabouts of the remains, providing Hyperallergic with a statement that the remains are “accounted for.”

What’s more, the Africa family and the Penn Museum hold different versions regarding the number of victims whose remains are held by the institution. The museum claims that the bones belong to one individual, while the family names two deceased children, Delisha and Tree.

In another statement yesterday, Penn University announced that it had hired attorneys Joe Tucker and Carl Singley of the Tucker Law Group to investigate “how the remains came into the possession of the museum and what transpired with them for nearly four decades.” The university vowed to return the remains to the Africa family.

This is the second time in a month that the Penn Museum publicly apologizes for mistreating the remains of Black individuals. In a statement on April 12, it regretted holding the stolen skulls of enslaved people, including Black Philadelphians, in its debated Morton Collection. A committee by the museum also vowed to repatriate the crania and to reassess the institution’s practices of collecting, displaying, and researching human remains.

In an emotional press conference on Monday, April 26, current MOVE members rejected the museum’s latest apology, calling it “empty words.”

“They don’t care about us and they definitely don’t care about our children,” said one of the members.

The group will hold a rally in Philadelphia tomorrow, April 28, under the slogan of “MOVE Children Deserve to Rest in Peace!” It has also circulated an online petition calling on the museum to immediately return the remains, offer financial reparations, and dismiss Monge, among other demands.

“The MOVE Family has been ceaselessly brutalized, criminalized, and dehumanized by the Philadelphia Police Department, held as political prisoners, and murdered,” the petition reads. “We will stop at nothing short of justice for our beloved children, Delisha Africa and Tree Africa, who were murdered in life and exploited in death by the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...