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Universities’ Foundation of Stolen Labor (and Stolen Remains) Demands a Reckoning

By Leigh Patel

Nassau Hall, Princeton University
Nassau Hall, Princeton University. Photo credit: Elisa Rolle

On Friday, June 4, the remains of two Black girls, Delisha and Katricia “Tree” Africa, were to be collected from the home of physical anthropologist Alan Mann, an emeritus professor associated with both the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. Delisha and Tree were members of the Black liberation community in Philadelphia known as the MOVE. On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police officers fired thousands of shot and grenades at 5:30 in the morning, peppering the row house where this communal organization resided. The assault concluded with a bomb dropped on the house from a police aircraft. Philadelphia fire fighters were present at the scene of the bombing and took no action as the rowhouse and sixty other homes burned to the ground. In the ashes were the remains of eleven Black members of the MOVE, including Delisha and Tree’s remains.

How did these two Black girls’ bones wind up in an emeritus professor’s home after being the property of either the University of Pennsylvania or Princeton University for twenty-five years?

To begin addressing that question, along with how to right the many wrongs that led to two Black children being killed and their remains being treated as university property, requires no less than an honest confrontation with the very foundations of universities, their practices of extraction, and the communities that have both been deeply harmed and lived above and beyond these harms. Put more simply, to make sense of these Black girls’ bones being in the hands of white anthropologists and used in online courses requires a reckoning.

Historian Craig Steven Wilder has named higher education as the third pillar of the US, alongside church and state. In his work, Wilder details how the nation’s most elite institutions were not only built by enslaved peoples but also how much that stolen labor was an engine for accruing white wealth and property in higher education. Wilder’s historical account takes on further resonance when we remember that the nation’s universities and colleges all occupy Indigenous lands. The removal of Indigenous peoples and the ongoing assaults on Black people are in the DNA of higher education. Little wonder, then, that in addition to Delisha and Tree Africa’s bones, thousands of remains of Native and Black peoples are ‘housed’ in academic institutions, sometimes in their museums and sometimes as research or teaching props. As a settler colony, the United States was not only formed through the structure of stolen labor on stolen land, but maintains that structure to secure whiteness as property.

When members of the very much alive MOVE community articulated demands in April about the appropriate current and future actions that the University of Pennsylvania could take, hundreds of Philadelphia residents joined in outrage. While outrage is appropriate, it’s also important to shine the light of historical truth that this instance is part and parcel of extraction for the proprietary inclinations of a settler colony. At the moment of capture, Africans ceased to be human and became chattel property under settler colonialism. Adjoined, native peoples were rendered as savages so that their relations to land could be severed and land could be recast as inert property. Universities have long engaged in extracting life from people and from land because extraction has strengthened universities’ endowments and carved pathways for professors to benefit economically and symbolically from patterns of extraction.

Delisha and Tree Africa’s remains simply remind us of one of the many connected parts of the project of settler colonialism. Both Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania have apologized for their parts in the shuttling of these Black girl’s bones between the institutions. However, neither university has moved to dismantle physical museums or return the remains of Black and Indigenous peoples, partly out of an insistence that the remains are necessary for scientific progress. Nor has either university offered reparations as a form of restitution for the profit they literally built through the examination of these girls’ bones, lacerating them from their home community. In fact, the act of claiming remains from people of color is justified as necessary for scientific progress.

At what cost does this settler science make its progress? How can we hold this idea of progress and reckon with the railways lain on top of the of the bodies of Chinese laborers who built them, the enslaved Black people who built wealth for the founding fathers’ pockets, and the Native peoples who to this day live in relation to land as a life form, not a parcel to be owned? At minimum, this latest contradiction between the outward facing image of higher education as a social good and its internal practices of extraction is an invitation to redress harm.

But, before harm can be redressed, it must named in its full truth. Relatedly, the StrikeMoMa movement makes the poignant claim that “Their exhibits are our receipts.” Put another way, the very property that universities own, including stolen land, stolen human being’s remains, and stolen art from its cultural origins, are the receipts for harm and theft that communities of color have shouldered and suffered. Even some of the most obvious demands to transform universities, such as #CopsOffCampus, must, to recast a phrase commonly associated with anthropology, dig deeper. In a recent panel addressing the responsibility of higher education to the StrikeMoMa movement, art, and activism, scholar and poet Fred Moten did part of the deeper dig, noting: “When we say we want cops off campus, we can’t say that without acknowledging the vast majority of policing on campus is done by faculty, in the classroom.” His point also applies to extraction—who it hurts and who benefits from it.

Alan Mann, the anthropology professor who was asked by the city of Philadelphia to consult about the remains of Delisha and Tree Africa’s bones directly after the bombing, then simply kept the bones as his property, looping into the extraction logics of thousands of Black and Indigenous bodies. The remains of these humans are decoupled from families and held in research archives. They continue to be used to support scientific racism that created false categories to justify slavery and the ongoing plunder of land and peoples. We have apologies from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. What we lack is a full reckoning with what these institutions and specific accumulations of whiteness as property are refusing to give up. While it’s plain what institutions are not willing to give up, they do not voice it. Social movements like the MOVE provide sharp contrasts in demands that move well beyond apologies. They demand freedom of wrongly incarcerated Black activists. They demand actions for better realities right now and better futures for all. This is what evades so much of university statements and fractional actions when extraction is cast under a public light: an ability to think beyond managing public relations crises.

Not dissimilar from the ways that Critical Race Theory has come under legislative attack, the backlash to explicit analyses of racism and the thin apologies speak volumes about how tightly whiteness is protected. However, as many scholars, both university-based and community-based, of racism and settler colonialism have noted, the reach of whiteness does its deepest damage to white people in constricting their ability to fully reckon with the harm upon which their cultural domination relies. Poetically just, it is precisely within communities that have been harmed that we find not only imagination and possibility, but fully dimensional humanity and recognition that all actions and practices have impact.

As universities move into full re-openings of campuses for the coming academic year, most are operating out of a frame of scarcity and capitalist competition, even ones as wealthy as Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. When and where will students learn about the plunder by universities and the much larger life and fortitude of peoples that settler colonialism has tried to erase? History teaches us that, largely, when students have learned about these realities, it has not been through university curriculum but rather beyond and often in opposition to the university. Moreover, when people form their own study groups to grapple with racist extraction and the attempt to erase not only the practices of extraction but family lines that have been severed, study groups often lead to activism for social change. Social movements have always included art as a way to lift up humanity, rather than enclose it in a glass case as property.  More just societies arise from this kind of study and struggle that seeks to document life and creation, not separate it for the sake of spectacle in the classroom or museum.


About the Author 

Dr. Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, writer, and professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She works extensively with societally marginalized youth and teacher activists. Patel is a recipient of the June Jordan Award for scholarly leadership and poetic bravery in social critique and is a national board member of Education for Liberation, a long-standing organization dedicated to transformative education for and by youth of color. She is the author of Youth Held at the Border, Decolonizing Educational Research, and the forthcoming No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education. Connect with her on Twitter at @lipatel.