Preliminary recommendations made for human remains uncovered in 1990s VCU construction project

Don Edwards, CEO and senior facilitator at Justice & Sustainability Associates, speaks during the...
Don Edwards, CEO and senior facilitator at Justice & Sustainability Associates, speaks during the East Marshall Street Well Project community meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.

Members of the East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council today announced preliminary recommendations for the continued study, memorialization and burial of human remains uncovered 22 years ago during construction of the Kontos Building on Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV campus.

The remains, believed to be largely of African descent, were discovered in an abandoned 19th century well.

The Family Representative Council, formed last summer to represent descendants of the people whose remains were found in the well, delivered its preliminary recommendations during a community meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.

Our recommendations reflect the desire to have the stories of our ancestors told as fully as possible, and to have their humanity and sacrifices finally honored.

“The Family Representative Council spent many hours developing recommendations for research, memorialization and interment of the ancestral remains found in the well,” said Joseph Jones, assistant professor of anthropology at William and Mary. “We bonded as ‘surrogate descendants’ of these children, women and men – quite possibly enslaved Africans – whose bodies helped form the foundation of American medicine. Our recommendations reflect the desire to have the stories of our ancestors told as fully as possible, and to have their humanity and sacrifices finally honored. It is my hope that these recommendations help people throughout the city to face the shames of our shared past without blinking – and in a just way that fosters knowledge and pride for this and future generations.”

The council’s research recommendations include further study of the history of the well site in relation to the broader experiences of Africans and African-Americans in Richmond and how the site impacts contemporary African-American medical experiences, the use of DNA and microbial analysis to learn more about the remains, and the establishment of a research advisory board to assist with project development and selection of future research proposals.   

Memorialization recommendations include the development of four memorial sites within or near the Kontos Building, construction of an appropriate memorial and an interactive learning center at the burial site, and an annual memorialization practice conducted by VCU medical students prior to anatomy class to pay respect to those who have contributed their remains for the benefit of scientific learning.

The council recommends that the remains and related artifacts be interred at the African Burial Ground site near I-95, or if that site is unavailable, at Evergreen Cemetery or at a site to be determined. The council also recommends the remains be placed in coffin boxes designed by West African artisans and the burial ceremony be developed by experts in West African funeral traditions.

Stephanie Smith, a member of the East Marshall Street Well Project's Family Representative Council, talks with others during a community meeting held at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.
Stephanie Smith, a member of the East Marshall Street Well Project's Family Representative Council, talks with others during a community meeting held at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.

“We appreciate the commitment of the Family Representative Council and their thorough work on this effort,” said Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior assistant to the president at VCU. “And we look forward to continued collaboration with the community as we move to the implementation stage of work on their recommendations.”

The public is invited to offer feedback that will help the Family Representative Council finalize the recommendations, which will be shared with leaders of the university and health system later this year.  

More information about the East Marshall Street Well Project and the preliminary Family Representative Council recommendations may be found at emsw.vcu.edu.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.