VCU Professor’s Documentary Examines Grave Robbing for Medical Dissection

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The practice of grave robbing for purposes of medical dissection is the focus of a documentary produced and directed by Virginia Commonwealth University Department of African American Studies Chairman Shawn O. Utsey, Ph.D.

“Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies” will be shown at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11, at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Ave. The documentary is free and open to the public.

While making his first documentary, “Meet Me in the Bottom: The Struggle to Reclaim Richmond’s African Burial Ground,” Utsey discovered that grave robbing for medical purposes was a widespread practice in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Those who engaged in the practice were known as resurrectionists. His documentary examines the practice in connection with institutions known at the time as the Medical College of Virginia, the Medical College of South Carolina and the Medical College of Georgia.

Utsey found that because Richmond was a center of slave trade in the 1800s, there was strong demand for black bodies, both living and dead.

“African American cemeteries were especially vulnerable to the nighttime activities of the resurrectionists and produced most of the anatomical material for the Medical College of Virginia,” Utsey said.

The documentary explores the lasting effects of grave robbing on the attitudes of African Americans toward doctors and hospitals today.

“The legacy of grave robbing for medical dissection is so indelibly etched into the psyches of African Americans that today many longtime Richmond residents still recount stories from their childhood of warnings to stay clear of the Medical College of Virginia late at night for fear that they may be snatched away to the dissection room never to be seen or heard from again,” Utsey said.

The 51-minute documentary, which took about a year to produce, includes interviews with community members, professional archivists, cultural anthropologists and historians. Former students assisted Utsey with the project.

For more information, contact Shawn Utsey at 804-828-1384 or email him at