That revelation — first brought to light this month in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed and a story in Billy Penn, a local news outlet — has reopened long-standing wounds in Philadelphia, adding a painful coda to one of the most notorious episodes in the city’s history: a violent night in 1985 when police bombed the Black radical group MOVE, razing a middle-class Black neighborhood to the ground.
In a public statement on Wednesday, officials at the university and its museum said they would work to return the remains to the Africa family and had hired lawyers to investigate how and why the bones had been stored away for so long.
But Mike Africa Jr., an activist and second-generation MOVE member, said that more needed to be done following the “egregious” saga.
“Who would do something like this? And without permission, without consent from the parents?” he told The Washington Post on Thursday. The victims, he added, “were people. They didn’t deserve to be bombed and then put in a lab to become research material.”
MOVE was founded in the 1970s and married Black radicalism with the back-to-nature movement and a push for animal rights, The Post previously reported. Members all took on the last name “Africa” while staging frequent protests and living in a communal rowhouse.
The group’s increasingly violent clashes with police came to a head in May 1985, according to Time magazine, when authorities swarmed the house to serve warrants on four MOVE members for illegal weapons possession. Neighbors, many of whom had complained to city officials about cultlike behavior at the MOVE house, were evacuated en masse from the area.
That evening, police deployed water cannons, tear gas and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to try to force people out of the MOVE house, claiming they were responding to shots from inside.
Then, suddenly, a police helicopter approached a bunker on the MOVE roof and dropped a bomb filled with C-4 explosives. The bombing started a fire that killed 11 people, including five children, and razed more than 60 homes in the area.
Bodies of MOVE members killed in the bombing were soon recovered from the rubble, but for six months they “decomposed in a city morgue,” rather than being returned to family members for burial, Richard Kent Evans, a historian at Haverford College, recounted in a book about the group.
The Philadelphia medical examiner’s office was unable to identify two fragments — the burned pelvic and femur bones — and transferred the bones to Mann.
But the professor was never able to conclude that the bones belonged to 14-year-old Tree, he told the Inquirer this week. According to Billy Penn, a local news outlet, some scholars and family members have floated the possibility that they instead were from another child, 12-year-old Delisha Africa, or an older victim of the bombing.
Mann kept the remains at the Penn Museum until 2001, when he took a job at Princeton University and brought them along, the Inquirer reported. The bones appeared to stay there until 2016, when Janet Monge, Mann’s former student and another University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, tried again to identify them. (Neither Mann nor Monge responded to requests for comment from The Post.)
“I would’ve given them back years ago, if anyone had asked me,” Mann told the Inquirer. “There’s absolutely no reason for us to keep them. They should be given back.”
But they never were. Instead, Monge also used the bones as a “case study” in an online Princeton course. Video of the class, which has since been taken down, showed Monge picking up and describing the bones, the Guardian reported.
Africa was shocked when he learned the news. “I thought everybody was buried,” he said. “I had no idea that Penn was keeping the remains of some of them.”
“We must constantly bear in mind the fact that human remains were once living people,” the University of Pennsylvania’s apology said, “and we must always strive to treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Christopher Woods, who became the Penn Museum’s first Black director earlier this month, has reached out to the Africa family, a museum spokeswoman said in a statement to The Post. She noted that the bones are “safe” but declined to say where they are located.
“Their ongoing conversations will help us understand the family’s wishes as we work towards a respectful resolution,” the spokeswoman wrote. “Reuniting the remains with MOVE family members is our goal.”