Return of the ancestral remains

In 1994, construction workers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical college uncovered a shameful episode from the past when they discovered a nineteenth-century well filled with human remains. At least 44 bodies — almost all of African ancestry — had apparently been thrown into the well following their use as anatomical or surgical specimens by the medical college sometime before 1860.

The university administration then compounded the desecration by ordering the removal of the bodies within days, without proper archaeological procedures, and ultimately shipped the whole lot off to the Smithsonian for storage there.

Later, with a new university administration and with faculty member Dr. Shawn Utsey’s inquiries into the fate of the remains, an “East Marshall Street Well Project” was initiated in 2013 to address the distressing situation and to attempt to properly memorialize the deceased while addressing the community’s concerns regarding the episode.

Over the years, the project convened a Family Representative Council to speak on behalf of these ancestors, and the council issued its final recommendations in 2018, calling for additional research, a series of memorials, and the dignified interment of the remains in the first African Burial Ground just below the medical campus.

One of the first steps enacting those recommendations will take place on Monday, November 25, when pallbearers and escorts will return the remains from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., back to Richmond. The public is invited to be a part of this process and pay respects, as the procession will stop at the medical campus that afternoon at 1:00pm for a tribute and ceremony honoring the return. The ceremony will take place at the Kontos building and courtyard near 13th and E. Marshall streets. Following the ceremony, the procession will move to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources on Kensington Avenue for the installment of the remains there for further study before final interment.

I remember attending one of the first events related to the launch of the East Marshall Street Well Project in November 2014, when a dance performance and speeches on the medical campus started us toward this resolution. It feels like a long time ago, so it is exciting to see this day of return arrive.

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