A photo at two people sitting in chairs in front of a desk witha a computer monitor and microphone on it.
Ana Edwards, an assistant professor of African American studies at VCU, has been interviewing members of the Family Representative Council, including Joe Jones and others who have been connected with the work going back to 1994. (Contributed photo)

VCU students, faculty document oral history of the East Marshall Street Well Project

The Health Humanities Lab, a research lab at VCU’s Humanities Research Center, is conducting the project in collaboration with the Family Representative Council.

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The remains of at least 44 adults and nine children were discovered in 1994 in an abandoned 19th-century well during construction on Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Campus. Historical and scientific research showed that the remains were primarily of Black Richmonders whose bodies had been stolen between 1848 and 1860, used for anatomical study at the Medical College of Virginia and then discarded in the well.

In 2013, VCU established the East Marshall Street Well Project to facilitate a process with the community that would ensure that the remains receive appropriate study, memorialization and reburial. The project has been working to implement the recommendations of the Family Representative Council, which represents the descendant community.

This spring, the Health Humanities Lab, a research lab at the VCU Humanities Research Center, has begun conducting an oral history project in collaboration with the Family Representative Council to document the progress of the East Marshall Street Well Project. In a recording studio in The Workshop at the James Branch Cabell Library, VCU African American studies assistant professor Ana Edwards has been interviewing council members and others who have been connected with the work going back to 1994.

“These stories [and] histories are not written and can be transmitted only through the telling,” said Family Representative Council member Stephanie I. Smith, who was recently interviewed. “There’s a tendency for people to think of history or historical events only in terms of written documentation. That is so limiting and incomplete because much of our story is our experiences that have not been written by scholars or journalists. Therefore, it’s important to gather the memories, experiences and revelation of events from those people who experienced them.”

The project is being stewarded by postdoctoral fellows Maggie Unverzagt Goddard, Ph.D., and Daniel Sunshine, Ph.D., as well as Health Humanities Lab director Chris Cynn, Ph.D., an associate professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, and Michael Dickinson, Ph.D., the lab’s oral history and memorialization project co-director and an associate professor of African American history. 

“Part of the Family Representative Council’s recommendations was to have an oral history that would capture the history of the East Marshall Street Well Project,” Dickinson said. “From its inception, what did it look like at its founding? And what are the perspectives of community members who have been engaged throughout the process?”

All the interviews will be publicly available later this spring through Special Collections and Archives at VCU Libraries, which will serve as a repository for the project and will manage the recordings and transcripts while the participants will maintain ownerships of their interviews under a Creative Commons license.

The project’s team includes 10 undergraduate and one graduate student fellows, who are helping to process the interviews and provide additional support. The students are also working on a variety of related projects, including programming a traveling exhibit on the East Marshall Street Well Project, designing a walking tour, developing a podcast, researching institutional policies on human remains and planning a teach-in.

Neha Potla, a sophomore biology major, is working on the policy project. “We’re looking at how VCU and other universities take accountability and can maybe consider implementing memorialization processes to ensure that bodies are treated as bodies and with justice,” she said.

Olivia Washington, a sophomore double-majoring in psychology and sociology, said being a student fellow with the oral history project has provided her with a new perspective on VCU and its history.

“VCU is such a beautiful and central part of Richmond, so I think learning about its history and engaging with both the good and bad parts is important,” she said.

Goddard said the oral history project will be valuable to the community, as well as VCU students and faculty. “We’re seeing a real appetite for faculty to incorporate this into their curriculum,” she said. “Having a podcast created by students would be such an incredible asset for course adoption.”

The oral history project is part of a Vertically Integrated Project, a program of the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation that supports the engagement of undergraduate students in faculty-led research, design or entrepreneurial projects focused on finding solutions to societal challenges. 

The student fellows have been participating in facilitated discussions about community-engaged research, and they have been learning audio production and other skills such as curriculum development, exhibition design, video production and ArcGIS mapping.

“The biggest part of the project,” lab director Cynn noted, “is to try to highlight this history so that students can better understand the institutional racism at the foundation of VCU. We were just awarded an Impact Grant to fund Health Humanities Lab student stipends for next year. We’re hopeful about receiving additional funding to ensure that we can carry out the Family Representative Council recommendations and complete the oral history and memorialization project.”

The oral history project is just one aspect of the East Marshall Street Well Project’s ongoing work. 

In January 2022, the remains of the people discovered in the well were transferred from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to the VCU Department of Forensic Science, where researchers began seeking to understand more about who the people were and the cultural and historical context in which they lived.

VCU researchers set out to answer questions, developed by the Family Representative Council, that were related to biochemical and DNA analysis of the remains, including information about the regional genetic ancestry of the individuals; the sex of children and younger adolescents whose sex cannot be determined by physical examination of the bones; the health environments of the individuals; and any connections between individuals whose remains were discovered and potential living descendants.

For more about the East Marshall Street Well Project, including the recommendations of the descendent community, please visit the project homepage. 

For more about the oral history and memorialization project, please visit the Health Humanities Lab homepage.