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Both Ivy League colleges apologize for ‘serious error’ in using bones of Black child for teaching 

The two Ivy League universities at the center of a billowing storm over the use in anthropology teaching of the bones of an African American child killed by Philadelphia police in 1985 have apologized for the “serious error”, promising to return the human remains to relatives who never consented to the practice.

The pelvis and femur bones of an unidentified Black girl thought to be in her teens were revealed last week to have been used as props in an online anthropology course staged by Princeton and given by a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. Neither institution had requested or received consent from the family of the child, yet held on to the bones for research and teaching for 36 years.

Now both universities have issued apologies, announced investigations by outside lawyers, and pledged to do better in future in their interactions with African American communities.

Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, said its “commitment to teaching and scholarship in the service of humanity depends on treating everyone we encounter with dignity and respect”. He added that he was “deeply troubled” to learn that the remains of the unidentified child had been used in an online course presented by his institution.

The now suspended course, Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology, deployed as a “case study” the bones of the girl who is believed to have been 12 or 14 when she was killed in a fire in West Philadelphia in May 1985. The inferno was started when Philadelphia police dropped an incendiary bomb on the roof of the headquarters of a Black liberation and back-to-nature group, Move.

The bones, retrieved from the ashes of the fire, fell into the hands of a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, Alan Mann, who was invited to help the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office in identifying them. It now transpires that he held on to the remains, taking them with him when he transferred from UPenn to Princeton in 2000.

Princeton’s department of anthropology has issued its own apology to the Move family, saying that it should have asked more questions about Mann’s research and what he was doing with the Black child’s bones. “As anthropologists we acknowledge that American physical anthropology began as a racist science marked by support for, and participation in, eugenics. It defended slavery, played a role in supporting restrictive immigration laws, and was used to justify segregation, oppression and violence in the USA and beyond,” the department said in a statement.

It added that “physical anthropology has used, abused and disrespected bodies, bones and lives of indigenous and racialized communities under the guise of research and scholarship. We have a long way to go toward ensuring anthropology bends towards justice.”

UPenn has now been in touch with Michael Africa Jr, a member of the Move family, to discuss future steps. He is assembling a panel that will come up with a plan for returning the bones and other measures.

“This is not just about giving these bones back, this is about restitution and accountability. If I as a Black person went to any grave and took bones, I’m going to jail,” Africa Jr told the Guardian.

Penn Museum, a part of the University of Pennsylvania where the bones were housed for many years, has now made clear that it intends to hand them over. “These remains should be returned to the Africa family as soon as possible,” said the museum’s director, Chris Woods, in a joint statement with UPenn’s provost, Wendell Pritchett.

“The research of our physical anthropologists was done in the interests of serving our community, but by any measure 36 years is far too long to have waited,” they said. “It was a serious error in judgment to use these remains in a class of any kind, especially given the extreme emotional distress in our community surrounding the 1985 bombing of the Move house.”

The online course was hosted by an eminent anthropologist, Janet Monge, who is based at both the Penn Museum and Princeton. She has yet to make any comment on the affair.

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