The University of Pennsylvania is moving forward with the reburial of the cranial remains of at least 13 black Philadelphians whose skulls have been preserved for nearly two centuries in a notorious anthropological collection used to justify white supremacy in the run-up to the American Civil War.
Ivy League University is petitioning the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court for permission to rebury the skulls in the city’s historic African-American district. Eden Cemetery. If the ceremony were to take place, it would represent one of the most important restoration processes for black remnants in America in the wake of racial reckoning following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
The repatriation effort will be closely watched by other museums and collectors in the United States and around the world. “This is an important moment, it opens the door to much broader conversations about these collections,” said Samuel Redman, author of Halls of Boneswhich traces the often dark history of the preservation of human remains.
The 13 skulls are currently stored at Penn Museum, the university’s home for archaeological and anthropological artifacts. They are part of a large collection of skulls, acquired by the museum in 1966, known as the Morton’s Cranial Collection.
Samuel George Morton, a professor of anatomy at Penn Medical School, amassed about 900 skulls, some of them from slaves, in the 1830s and 1840s. After his death in 1851, skulls continued to be sent to the collection from across the United States and around the world, increasing its inventory to 1,700 skulls which are currently stored in the Physical Anthropology section of the Penn Museum.
Morton used the collection to support polygenesis – the pseudo-scientific theory that races had distinct origins and were of varying intelligence. He divided mankind into five races, including black Africans whom he referred to as the “Ethiopian race” and whites or “Caucasians”.
Morton viewed “niggers” and “mulattoes,” as he called black people, through racist stereotypes. “The Negro is cheerful, flexible and indolent,” he wrote in his influential 1839 book American skulladding that race represented at its extreme “the lowest degree of humanity”.
The teacher meticulously cataloged the skulls, numbering them and labeling them according to ethnicity. He set out to prove his belief in racial differences by measuring the internal capacity of the skull, pouring seeds of white pepper and later iron shot into the cavities.
He then calculated the amount of material needed to fill each skull and converted it to cubic inches, from which he arrived at what he presented as the average brain size for each racial group. Caucasians, he concluded, had the biggest brains and Ethiopians the smallest.
The findings were weaponized by southern white supremacists as evidence of the intrinsic intellectual, moral, and physical inferiority of black people and used to bolster the case for the continuation of slavery.
Morton’s research has since been completely debunked. A succession of modern scientists, including Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in 1978, have repeated his studies and found them to be racially prejudicial in design, fundamentally flawed in scientific method, and inaccurate in their results.
In recent years, Penn has come under increasing pressure to address past inequities reflected in the Morton collection. In 2017, university students launched the Penn & Slavery Project to uncover the links between the university and slavery, leading to calls for the return of the remains of the slave collection.
In July 2020, following the summer of unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, the Penn Museum placed in storage a number of slave skulls from a plantation in Cuba that were still on display. in display cases to a classroom. The following year, the museum’s new director, Christopher Woods, formally apologized for the unethical possession of human remains and launched a return and burial process with the help of an advisory group. local community leaders.
“Moving forward with the burial of the 13 black Philadelphians is the first step in what we hope will be an ongoing effort toward atonement and redress,” a museum spokesperson told The Guardian.
Kathleen Brown, a historian who is the senior academic at the Penn & Slavery Project, welcomed the move. “This is the first I hope for many changes, not just for the Penn Museum but for museums around the world,” she said.
Several of the world’s top museums have vast collections of human remains, some inspired by Morton, and face similar growing pressure to solve the ethical puzzles. In the United States, they include the Smithsonian in Washington, which has tens of thousands of human remains, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
In Europe, institutions that will follow Penn’s events intensely given their own collections include the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, the National Museum of Anthropology in Berlin, and the British Museum and Natural History Museum in London.
The Penn Museum is built on the former grounds of the Blockley Hospice, where poor black and white people, orphans, homeless people and the physically and mentally ill were held in prison-like conditions. Bodies of deceased hospice residents were often trafficked—either for use as anatomy cadavers in the burgeoning medical school or as skulls for Morton’s growing collection.
Of the 13 black people whose skulls are to be reburied, some likely died in the hospice and several were believed to have been enslaved during their lifetime. The identity of only one of the individuals is known – number 1319 in Morton’s catalog, John Vorhees.
Morton described Vorhees as a “mulatto porter” who died aged 35 in 1846 in the hospice hospital. Prior to his death, Vorhees allegedly confessed to murder, which likely explains why his name is used in the catalog as a form of naming and shaming.
A particularly macabre element of this story is that Morton, who practiced as a doctor at the hospice, is said to have personally known some of the individuals whose skulls he collected.
“Morton and his fellow doctors at the hospice knew some of these people as patients before they made specimens,” said Paul Wolff Mitchell, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam who last year published a report on the Morton collection which acted as a major catalyst for the repatriation movement.
Mitchell added, “These remains are among the most direct testimonies to the violent history of medical and scientific racism in Philadelphia and the United States.”
If the go-ahead is granted by the Orphans’ Court, which oversees the remains of those who are unidentified or unclaimed, Penn plans to hold an interfaith memorial service at the reburial at Eden Cemetery. A remembrance marker will also be placed on the university campus and a community-led public forum will be held.
Some concerns remain among community leaders. Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a member of the community advisory board set up as part of the restoration process, made a formal complaint in orphan court.
They told the Guardian they object to the university and museum controlling the restoration process given that they are the ones who have benefited from the historical desecration of Black and Indigenous remains. “The institution where the harm occurred cannot be the same institution that manages the healing process.”
Muhammad also questioned the university’s expressed intention to rebury “at least 13” black Philadelphians. “What does this mean? Are there more black Philadelphians in the collection? They need to share the inventory list with the community.
The university told the Guardian that given the complexity of the Morton collection, with skulls from all parts of the world and some skulls dating back to ancient Egypt, they were treating the skulls in smaller subgroups and not as a single unit. After the reburial of the 13 remains, the university plans to arrange for the return of the 53 slave skulls to Cuba.
“It will take a long time as we are proceeding with the utmost care, respect and diligence,” the spokesperson said.. “If further research yields new information about individuals in the collection, we remain committed to taking appropriate action for repatriation or burial.”