Museum Kept Bones of Black Children Killed in 1985 Police Bombing in Storage for Decades

Outrage erupted over the revelation that the likely remains of two young victims were held in and studied at Ivy League institutions

A black and white image of seven people, all Black, raising their right fists in the air in a line
Following a 1985 police bombing that left 11 dead, mourners stand in front of MOVE's former headquarters, raising their arms in the Black Power salute as the funeral procession for leader John Africa passes. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

On May 13, 1985, in a display of state violence that stunned the nation, the Philadelphia Police Department bombed its own city.

MOVE, a radical Black separatist movement formed in 1973, had been protesting against the imprisonment of its members and other manifestations of systemic injustice for years. When confrontation escalated to armed conflict on that early spring evening, police helicopters dropped a bomb that decimated the organization’s headquarters on Osage Avenue, in West Philadelphia.

Eleven people died in the explosion, including MOVE’s founder, John Africa, and five children: 12-year-old Netta Africa, 14-year-old Tree Africa, 11-year-old Phil Africa, 12-year-old Delisha Africa and 9-year-old Tomaso Africa. (All MOVE members take the surname Africa as a symbol of Black liberation.) A fire sparked by the bomb destroyed 61 homes—an entire block—and left more than 250 people unhoused, as Lindsey Norward reported for Vox in 2019.

This act of violence continues to resonate in the West Philadelphia community. Last week, renewed controversy over the bombing broke out after Maya Kassutto of Billy Penn reported that officials had never returned a set of remains thought to belong to two of the victims—Tree and Delisha—to their families.

Authorities who retrieved the bones—including a pelvic bone and part of a femur—from the rubble of Osage Avenue turned them over to Alan Mann, then an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, for forensic analysis. Despite decades of study, the remains were never conclusively identified. They may belong to just one of the girls or both, per Ed Pilkington of the Guardian. (As Billy Penn reports, some scholars have also argued that the bones belong to older victims of the bombing.)

When Mann joined Princeton University’s faculty in 2001, he took the remains with him to New Jersey. After Billy Penn’s report was published last Wednesday, a Penn Museum spokesperson told Craig R. McCoy of the Philadelphia Inquirer that the remains were later shuttled back to the museum, where they were kept for the past five years. The museum reportedly returned the bones to Mann on April 17.

The remains’ haphazard journey—and the fact that the museum and university denied the victims and their kin the dignity of a burial—has sparked an outcry among observers, writes Colleen Flaherty for Inside Higher Ed. At the Penn Museum, the Billy Penn reports, the badly burned remains were not stored in a climate-controlled state, but rather kept in a cardboard box on a shelf.

Museum Kept Bones of Black Children Killed in 1985 Police Bombing in Storage for Decades
The Penn Museum in Philadelphia, part of the University of Pennsylvania, as pictured in 2012 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What’s more, the remains appear to have been used as a “case study” in an online course presented by Princeton University and hosted on Coursera. Titled “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology,” the class was recorded in 2019 and includes footage of Janet Monge, an adjunct professor in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and former student of Mann, picking up the bones and describing them in graphic detail. She makes no reference to the fact that the families of probable victims Tree and Delisha never provided consent for their daughters’ bones to be used in this way, the Guardian notes.

The same day that Billy Penn published its report, organizer Abdul-Aliy Muhammad published an op-ed in the Inquirer calling on the Penn Museum and Princeton to offer reparations for their unethical possession and use of the children’s remains.

“People should not have to fight to discover that remains of Black people have been used as instruction when the family had no idea,” Muhammad writes.

MOVE remains active in Philadelphia today, according to West Philadelphia Collaborative History. Member Mike Africa Jr., who was six at the time of the bombing, expressed shock and dismay at the revelations in an interview with Billy Penn.

“They were bombed, and burned alive,” Africa Jr. said, “and now you wanna keep their bones.”

As Muhammad notes in their op-ed, the Penn Museum recently affirmed a commitment to repatriate and rebury its Morton Cranial Collection, an unethically acquired archive of human skulls that was employed by generations of white supremacists in support of pseudo-scientific racist ideas. This collection includes the remains of Black Philadelphians, per a museum statement.

“Just as Penn has apologized for its unethical collection of human skulls, the university must also apologize for holding these MOVE remains and agree to make restitution,” writes Muhammad.

News of the controversy over the MOVE victims’ remains broke just days before the city of Philadelphia is slated to honor the 36th anniversary of the event, notes the Inquirer. Last November, the Philadelphia City Council formally apologized for the bombing, as Daryl Bell reported for the Philadelphia Tribune at the time.