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Recommendations made for human remains uncovered in 1990s VCU construction project

Stephanie Smith, a member of the East Marshall Street Well Project's Family Representative Council
Stephanie Smith, a member of the East Marshall Street Well Project's Family Representative Council, speaks during a community meeting in June 2016. (File photo)

Members of the East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council shared their recommendations for the continued study, memorialization and burial of human remains uncovered 24 years ago during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences 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 in 2015 to represent descendants of the individuals whose remains were found in the well, delivered its final recommendations Dec. 3 to VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., and Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of VCU Health System and vice president for health sciences.

“These recommendations represent several years of research and deliberation and fully address community interests and concerns,” said Joseph Jones, assistant professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and a member of the Family Representative Council. “Their implementation will restore visibility and human dignity to our ancestors whose labor and bodies were indispensable to the development of this city and the medical sciences.”

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 microbial and other biological analyses 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 with appropriate signage within or near the Kontos Building, construction of an appropriate memorial and an interactive learning component 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. 

“We are grateful for the insight and guidance of East Marshall Street Well Project members and Family Representative Council members,” Rao said. “We thank the members for giving a voice to human beings who did not receive respect during their lifetime and after their passing.”

Rappley said the council’s recommendations will guide the efforts to properly recognize those whose names have been lost to time.

“This is incredibly important and emotional work,” Rappley said. “You are shining examples of thoughtfulness, unity and healing.”

The public is invited to learn more about the recommendations on Thursday, Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, 1217 E. Marshall St. Doors will open at 5:30. Members of the community are invited to submit nominations (self or others) for service on one of the three implementation steering committees for research, memorialization and interment. Nomination forms are available online and also will be available at the event.

More information about the East Marshall Street Well Project and the 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.