VCU’s Apology

On September 16, 2022, Virginia Commonwealth University’s board of visitors approved a resolution apologizing for the 1968 heart transplant episode in which Bruce Tucker’s live heart was taken without his and his family’s consent at the Medical College of Virginia’s hospital. The resolution also acknowledges and regrets the earlier practice of targeting Black graves to procure medical cadavers in the nineteenth century.

The apology was a long time coming. It comes on the heels of Chip Jones’s reporting in The Organ Thieves (2020), which traces the ordeal of Bruce Tucker, who had arrived at the hospital for treatment with a serious head injury. Jones’s book connects that episode with the hospital’s previous role in the cadaver trade in a racist continuum that has historically devalued Black lives. This year, The Organ Thieves is VCU’s “Common Book,” assigned reading for all incoming first-year students.

The substance of VCU’s resolution acknowledges that:

“WHEREAS, in the mid 1800s, what was then the Medical College of Virginia (“the Medical College”), engaged in medical experimentation and research that resulted in dehumanizing practices for handling the remains of primarily Black and enslaved people;

WHEREAS, when these remains were discovered during construction on campus in 1994, VCU did not render proper recognition and respect for the invaluable lives and memories of these individuals;”

and

“WHEREAS, Mr. Bruce Tucker, a Black man and fellow Virginian, contributed to an important medical advancement as the donor for the Medical College’s first heart transplant but his procedure was done without his or his family’s knowledge and consent;”

and

“WHEREAS, VCU regrets the grave injustice against these lives and commemorates VCU’s East Marshall Street Well site in an effort to ensure they are not forgotten and that VCU can learn from this dark moment in history;”….

“NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, VCU acknowledges and sincerely apologizes to the late Mr. Bruce Tucker, and to his family, for the Medical College’s transplant of his heart 54 years ago.” And the institution committed to raising a plaque in Tucker’s honor.

The resolution itself is worth reading, as is Jones’s book. Governor Doug Wilder, who as a lawyer represented Tucker’s family in the episode, will be hosting a conversation reflecting on “Racism, Health and Accountability” on the evening of September 19. Jones will be speaking about the book at VCU on October 12.

It takes a long time to turn the ship.

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