Sept. 26, 2013
Community-campus committee will work to memorialize human remains uncovered in 1990s construction project
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The first meeting of a planning committee whose members will help inform the process for memorializing centuries-old human remains uncovered in a construction project in the 1990s took place Wednesday evening at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Scott House.
The committee, consisting of university faculty and staff, local and state lawmakers, spiritual leaders, planners and civil group representatives, will help determine the process for moving forward on plans to properly honor the remains, which were discovered under East Marshall Street by crews during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building.
The bones, shoes, hand-blown test tubes and beakers and other materials found in a well about 25 feet underground and are believed to have been discarded in the 1800s by medical students at the former medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, precursor of the Medical College of Virginia, now the VCU School of Medicine. The bones from cadavers, corpses and amputations were likely used in medical dissections in the 19th century and appear to include the remains of enslaved African-Americans.
“I want you to help us to ensure that we do the right thing for human beings that lived tragic lives,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., in his welcome to the committee. “Good universities confront these issues. You will help us determine what is the right way for us to have these conversations and what is the best way for us to move forward.”
The discovery and removal of the bones remained largely forgotten by the public until Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., former chairman of the Department of African American studies, considered them as part of his documentary, "Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies," which was completed in the fall of 2011. The documentary examined the practice of grave robbing for medical dissection in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the South, demand was strong for black bodies.
The creation of Utsey’s documentary brought the issue to the attention of current university leaders, who then began identifying and working with appropriate community partners.
“Part of the work that we have ahead of us is putting together a process for responding appropriately,” said Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior assistant to the president, who was selected to coordinate the process. “Work from this planning committee will lead to the creation of a steering committee to determine an appropriate examination of the remains and consider proper reburial and memorialization.”
VCU has been working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to determine how best to proceed with studying the remains, which have been examined by researchers at the Smithsonian Institute and at Archaeological and Cultural Solutions in Williamsburg. VCU researchers also conducted historical analysis of the medical education process at the time.
In addition to Utsey, the other planning committee members are:
- Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, vice president of Richmond City Council, (co-chair)
- Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality
- Cricket White, Hope in the Cities
- Del. Delores L. McQuinn, Slave Trail Commission
- Rev. J. Elisha Burke, director of health ministry, Baptist General Convention of Virginia (co-chair)
- Mark Olinger, director of planning and development, City of Richmond
- Larry Miller, project management analyst for Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, City of Richmond
- Joanna Wilson Green, archeologist, Easements and Archeology Stewardship, Virginia Department of Historic Resources
- Russel Uzzle, university planner, VCU planning and design
- Karen Rader, Ph.D., associate professor, VCU department of history
- Monika Markowitz, Ph.D., director of education compliance oversight, Office of Research at VCU
- John Kneebone, Ph.D., associate professor and chair, VCU department of history
- John Ulmschneider, university librarian, James Branch Cabell Library
- Wanda Mitchell, Ed.D., vice president for inclusive excellence at VCU
Recommendations regarding the future of the human remains would fall under the purview of the community representatives, who could call on the input and perspective of university committee members as desired. The committee also will coordinate its efforts with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
Allison said the committee will invite the public to participate in the process.
“We will ultimately hold a series of presentations to the public to share what has been discovered,” Allison said.
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