Special VCU council offers plan for human remains from old medical research

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/6/2018, 6 a.m.
A proper burial in a historic African-American cemetery, recognition on the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus and continued research.

A proper burial in a historic African-American cemetery, recognition on the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus and continued research.

Those are the recommendations that VCU has received for handling the skeletal remains of 53 men, women and children whose bodies were used before the Civil War to help train doctors at the Medical College of Virginia and whose bones later were thrown into a well on the campus in the vicinity of 12th and Marshall streets.

The recommendations came from the East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council. VCU President Michael Rao set up the council in 2015 to consider how to handle the remains that were discovered 24 years ago during the construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Science Building.

The 10-member council, which was established to represent the unknown families of the nine children under age 14 and the 44 individuals over 14, delivered its final report Monday to Dr. Rao and Dr. Marsha Rappley, chief executive officer of the VCU Health System, the current name for MCV.

The recommendations are scheduled to be shared with the public at 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, in the Kontos Building auditorium, 1217 E. Marshall St.

Participants also can nominate themselves or others to serve on committees to implement the recommendations during the meeting or online at emsw.vcu.edu, the university announced.

“These recommendations represent several years of research and deliberation and fully address community interests and concerns,” said Dr. Joseph Jones, assistant professor of anthropology at The College of William & 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.”

According to the council, the bones of the individuals, as well as the hundreds of related artifacts found with them, should be interred at the city-owned African Burial Ground at 15th and Broad streets that is part of the Richmond Slave Trail.

If that site should be unavailable, the council recommended burial at the historic 19th century Evergreen Cemetery in the city’s East End or at a similar appropriate burial ground to be determined.

The council also recommended that West African artisans be employed to build the coffins and that experts in West African funeral traditions officiate the ceremony. The council also called for construction of an appropriate memorial and interactive learning component at the burial site.

In addition, the council also recommended that VCU establish four memorial sites with appropriate signage within or near the Kontos Building and hold an annual memorial ceremony, to be conducted by VCU medical students prior to starting their anatomy classes, to pay respect to those who have contributed their remains for the benefit of scientific learning.

Also, the council called for VCU to continue research into the history of the well site and its connections to the broader experiences of Africans and African-Americans in Richmond and how the site impacts contemporary African-American medical experiences. The council also asked VCU to continue microbial and other biological analyses to learn more about the remains and to establish an advisory board to assist in the review of research proposals and project development from selected projects.

Along with Dr. Jones, council members include Stacy Burrs, Jennifer Early, Lillie A. Estes, Carmen Foster, Christopher Green, Crystal Noakes, Rhonda Keyes Pleasants, Stephanie Smith and Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor.

The council has been supported by a 15-member community planning committee that Dr. Rao established in 2013 to consider the future of the remains.

“We are grateful for the insight and guidance of the council members,” Dr. Rao stated Tuesday in releasing the recommendations ahead of the meeting. “We thank the members for giving a voice to human beings who did not receive respect during their lifetime and after their passing.”

Following the discovery of the bones in 1994, then-VCU President Eugene P. Trani had the bones sent to the Smithsonian Institution for study. The bones were returned a few years ago to VCU. All are believed to be the remains of African-Americans whose bodies after death were stolen or purchased for MCV students to dissect.

Dr. Rao stated that the discovery remained largely unaddressed at VCU until it was given public attention in Dr. Shawn Utsey’s 2011 documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry,” which examined the issue of grave robbing and the use of African-American bodies in medical education during the 1800s. Dr. Utsey, chair of the VCU Department of African-American Studies and an associate professor of psychology, also served on the planning committee.

Founded in 1838, MCV needed cadavers to train white doctors, but had to find African-American go-betweens to obtain them because state law during most of the 19th century made it a crime to use human remains in medical training and research, according to Jodi Koste, head of the VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library Special Collections and Archives.

The Smithsonian research determined the bones were those of 53 individuals, while Merry A. Outlaw, assistant curator of Historic Jamestowne Rediscovery, evaluated the 423 artifacts and animal remains found in the well. She found that the artifacts dated from 1790 to 1850, suggesting the use of the well ended before the Civil War began in 1861, according to VCU.