Ivy League University Museum to rebury skulls of black Philadelphians from skull collection used to vindicate white supremacy

For nearly six years, the students had taken introductory and advanced courses in anthropology surrounded by a few hundred skulls that constituted only a fraction of Morton’s enormous skull collection, named after Samuel George Morton, a doctor and professor of anatomy who used racist pseudo-science. to advance the ideas of white supremacy.

The University of Pennsylvania now plans to rebury the skulls of at least 13 Black Philadelphians whose remains have been housed as part of the Morton Cranial Collection which has been at the Penn Museum since 1966. In 2014, part of the collection was moved to a classroom following the construction of new facilities within the museum dedicated to archaeological analysis.

The reburial effort grew out of the nation’s racial reckoning after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, leading the museum to examine its colonial and racist history in regards to their practices surrounding the collection of human remains. Students and community activists were at the center of calls to return the remains to descendant communities.

“Our goal is to do the right thing and rebury these people after about 170 years and do it as respectfully and with dignity as possible,” said museum director Christopher Woods.

The Penn Museum is applying to the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court for permission to rebury the skulls at Eden Cemetery, a historic black cemetery just outside Philadelphia. Woods said if the court approves the interment, the museum hopes to hold an open interfaith ceremony at the cemetery in the fall to commemorate the reburials.

Still, some community members believe the Penn Museum shouldn’t be leading efforts to rebury the remains. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a lifelong West Philadelphia native, community activist and member of the Community Advisory Group, filed a formal objection at reburial in Philadelphia Orphans Court.

They said while they do not disagree with the reburial of the remains, they feel the process was rushed with a lack of community control and input from descendant communities.

“I don’t think an institution that has financially, culturally and sociopolitically benefited from the violent removal of remains from the soil in the name of so-called science can be the same institution that owns the healing process,” Muhammad said. .

In response, Woods said he believed it was the responsibility of the university and the museum to facilitate the reburial process given that the skulls are in their custody. He added that today’s university is no longer the same institution it was in 1840.

“I think it’s our responsibility as stewards to do the right thing, and we should do that in consultation with the community and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Woods said.

As part of his pseudo-scientific research, Morton acquired approximately 900 skulls, including some of enslaved people, throughout the 1830s and 1840s. After his death in 1851, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia continued to enrich the collection, obtaining skulls from around the world to increase the collection to more than 1,300 cranial remains, according to the Penn Museum.
In his 1839 book “Crania Americana”, Morton referred to blacks as the “Ethiopian race”, adding that this race at its extreme was “the lowest grade of mankind”.

Decades later, Morton and other archaeologists came under increasing scrutiny for their work, and schools were forced to grapple with how these figures were at the forefront of rising scientific racism.

“Reconciliation does not mean covering up your past”

In July 2020, the Penn Museum moved part of the Morton collection on display in a classroom since 2014 to storage. This classroom exhibit included the skulls of some of the black Philadelphians as well as the remains of slaves from Cuba. About a year later, Woods, who had just taken on his new role as museum director, formally apologized for “the unethical possession of human remains” and underlined the museum’s intention to initiate a process of returning the remains to their ancestral communities.

A few months later, the museum formed the Morton Cranial Collection Community Advisory Group, made up of community leaders, to make recommendations for reconciliation, respectful repatriation and memorialization of the remains.

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Woods said he saw the reburial as a way for the university to address its complicity in slavery, adding that it was just a first step in the institution to address its history and move forward. forward by doing the right thing.

He said that after the reburial of the 13 black Philadelphians, the university plans to focus on returning the 53 slave skulls from Cuba, hiring a bioanthropologist of color and creating a campus marker that addresses the Morton’s racist legacy as a way of “owning the past”.

Reverend Jesse Mapson, senior pastor of a church in West Philadelphia and a member of the advisory group, said he supports interment of the cranial remains at Eden Cemetery and believes it is a decision of the university to begin building a better relationship with black Philadelphians. .

“Reconciliation doesn’t mean covering up your past, it means looking at it openly,” Mapson said. “Honestly, I think Penn recognized his story in terms of what was done in another day and another time.”

Morton’s Racist Legacy

Throughout the mid-19th century, Morton collected skulls and measured them to advance ideas of white supremacy emphasizing the intellectual superiority of white people over other racial groups. His research has since been discredited by a multitude of modern scientists and anthropologists who have found his methods prejudicial and inaccurate.

Paul Mitchell, a former doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, said that although ideas linking brain size, intelligence and racial inferiority were not unique to Morton in the 19th century, the magnitude and the scope of his collection and research were unparalleled. Morton’s affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, known as an elite, state-of-the-art institution, further enabled the proliferation and general acceptance of these racist ideas, he said. -he adds.

“When we talk about scientific racism and these intellectual, pseudoscientific justifications for slavery, they don’t all come from the South,” Mitchell said. “Some of the biggest ones actually come from the North.”

Morton’s research was co-opted by antebellum Southern white supremacists to argue for the preservation of slavery based on ideas that black people were inherently inferior. After Morton’s death, the Charleston Medical Journal in 1851 wrote an obituary stating, “We can only say that we in the South should regard him as our benefactor, for having aided most materially in giving the negro his true position of inferior race.”

An excerpt from Morton's 1849 book,
Mitchell, now a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, last year wrote a report on the Morton collection highlighting Morton’s racist legacy. Mitchell details how some of the skulls in Morton’s collection were sent to him by colleagues, but he personally obtained skulls belonging to black and white Philadelphians. While working as a doctor at the Blockley Almshouse, a charity hospital where the Penn Museum is now located, the skulls of black Philadelphians were likely stolen from unmarked graves, he added.

Of the 13 black individuals, only one man named John Voorhees is documented by Morton. In 1846, 35-year-old Voorhees, whom Morton calls a “mulatto carrier,” died of tuberculosis in a Philadelphia hospital. On his deathbed, he allegedly confessed to a nurse that he had murdered someone about one to two decades earlier.

Mitchell said he suspected Morton of explicitly naming Voorhees as a way to shame him and label him a criminal based on his alleged murder confession that Morton only knew about based on what he said. a white doctor colleague had told him. In the 19th century, it was common to “shame” suspected criminals by announcing their death. This shame was applied posthumously when their remains were named as part of an anatomical collection, Mitchell added.

“So many eyes are on Philadelphia now, given how significant this reburial was for causing a major shift in the way we think about museum collections and the ethics of owning human remains,” Mitchell said.

A growing effort by intellectual institutions

The reburial efforts at the University of Pennsylvania are part of a larger conversation about the ownership and treatment of black remains by museums, collectors and other intellectual institutions.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, researchers recently began working to uncover the origins of human remains, most of which belonged to people of African descent, found in a university well in 1994. At Harvard, a project to A report from a steering committee created to make recommendations for Harvard’s collection of human remains urged the university to return the remains of Native Americans and slaves to descendant communities.
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Woods said part of the museum’s reconciliation efforts is to move “beyond a NAGPRA-based infrastructure,” referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, a federal law. demanding the repatriation of Aboriginal remains.

There is no similar law for African-American remnants, which makes what is happening at the University of Pennsylvania more important and urgent, Woods said.

Mapson said he hopes the reburial efforts can serve as a model for other communities across the country facing similar issues related to reconciliation and repatriation.

“Penn is not alone in being a prestigious university that has historically failed to meet the needs of communities,” Mapson said. “Because black lives didn’t matter, neither did black death. So how do universities show respect in terms of community needs and the perception that universities don’t care?”

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