Remains that were found to be those of a Black MOVE teen-ager who was killed by Philadelphia police in 1985 were treated as an anthropological specimen.
“The bodies of the six Black men and women and five Black children lay under the smoldering embers of the row house.”
The police bombing of 6221 Osage Avenue, in Philadelphia, caused a level of trauma that is difficult to exaggerate. On May 13, 1985, while many of the city’s residents were still basking in the glow of the previous afternoon’s Mother’s Day gatherings, hundreds of heavily armed police officers surrounded a row house in a Black neighborhood in West Philadelphia. After firing thousands of rounds of ammunition and cannisters of noxious tear gas into the home, they flew a helicopter over the roof and dropped a package of military-grade explosives. What followed was unimaginable.
This event—which Philadelphia’s mayor later said began with the intention of serving warrants to the residents, members of a largely Black group called Move—left around two city blocks of a formerly vibrant neighborhood in ashes, and more than sixty mostly working- and middle-class families homeless. That would have been bad enough. But what made this a trauma from which the city could not heal was that the bodies of the six Black men and women and five Black children lay under the smoldering embers of that row house—eleven human beings whom police had known were inside when they had dropped incendiary devices. Worse? No one was ever held meaningfully accountable for these many deaths.
So, in late April, when news outlets revealed that human remains from that event had been kept at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, at the University of Pennsylvania, and even used as a case study for an online class at Princeton University, the outpouring of disbelief and outrage from across the country was immediate and fierce. Indeed, the idea that the museum was holding the bones of a Black Philadelphian who was alive as recently as 1985 in the same way that it has held the skulls of enslaved people, procured by grave-robbers, was beyond comprehension.
“Human remains from that event were used as a case study for an online class at Princeton University.”
This month, Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, released the additionally distressing piece of news that the city had other remains from the move bombing. At first, Kenney reported that the city’s health commissioner had the remains cremated and disposed of, without attempting to reach family members. He then explained that, after his first announcement, the remains had actually been found, in the basement of the medical examiner’s office.
But, at first, the story we were told, about the remains at the museum, was this: in 1985, the Philadelphia medical examiner’s office asked Alan Mann, an anthropologist then at the University of Pennsylvania, to identify the remains of the bodies found in the debris of the Move house. Mann attempted to do that, but was unable to positively identify one of the sets of bones. He kept those remains for continued study and stored them at the Penn Museum. And, at some point, Janet Monge, an anthropologist and curator at the museum, who as a graduate student had assisted Mann in his original investigation, used the remains to teach an online course at Princeton. That course, which was recently taken down, was previously open to the public, and anyone who registered could see the remains being handled.
The early coverage of this story seemed to understand why some would find it macabre, but many articles also noted that there may not have been anything inherently sinister or unethical about Mann and Monge keeping the Move remains. Mann had been asked to do a forensic examination of them, and he and Monge were still trying to do just that. This was the basic argument that representatives of Princeton and Penn were making as well. As a Penn spokesperson informed a critical public, the whole point of holding on to the remains was “to restore the individual’s personhood, help solve this painful case in the city’s history, and bring resolution to the community.”
But a full consideration of the city’s history with Move, and of all that actually happened during the original forensic investigation of the bodies that were left in the rubble of Osage Avenue, is exactly what was missing in the earliest reporting on this story. The remains that Mann claimed had never been satisfactorily identified had, in fact, been found to belong to a teen-age girl who, along with her sister, died that day. Until last month, their mother believed that both girls had been buried in 1985. To reckon with the actual history of the case raises troubling questions about why, after the original investigation, Mann had kept the remains at all. But there is, perhaps, something even more important to consider. The full history reveals the risk of too easily, and with too little skepticism, telling a story from the vantage point of those with power or prestige: one can easily end up quite literally erasing from history the people who had neither.
“Until last month, their mother believed that both girls had been buried in 1985.”
Since its formation, in the early seventies, Move had been under constant surveillance by law enforcement. A multiracial collective of people who took the surname of Africa and saw themselves as a family, Move members lived a back-to-nature life style and grew increasingly outspoken against what they called “the System”: its intense racism, police brutality, mistreatment of animals, pollution of nature, and much more. In the late seventies, Philadelphia’s mayor, Frank Rizzo, who had previously served as police commissioner and didn’t shy away from courting racist constituents, became determined to arrest Move members and evict them from their home—which, at that time, was in the West Philadelphia neighborhood of Powelton Village.
Between 1976 and 1978, clashes between the police and Move at that house reached a crisis point. That dramatic period saw the death of a Move baby (which some members of that group said occurred because police attacked the mother), a months-long police blockade of the Move house, and a shootout between police and Move at that house, which ended in the death of a police officer. (Police blamed Move, and Move blamed police.) On the day of the shooting, a Move member named Delbert Africa was beaten severely by police. Soon after, that house was levelled by cranes. These events culminated in nine Move members being sentenced to up to a hundred years in prison for, among other charges, the death of the police officer, and in the acquittal of three officers who were charged with the beating of Delbert Africa.
By 1983, a core group of Move members, including the group’s founder, John Africa, had relocated to the house on Osage Avenue, in the Cobbs Creek area of West Philadelphia. The longer they lived there, the more determined they became to force the city and its newly elected Black mayor, Wilson Goode, to revisit the sentences of the Move Nine. By Christmas Eve of 1983, the residents of 6221 Osage Avenue were blasting their demands for justice, and their increasingly vitriolic and profanity-laced critiques of city officials and the system, from loudspeakers day and night. As dismay about the situation mounted among Move’s neighbors, they began pressuring the city to do something.
“Nine Move members were sentenced to up to a hundred years in prison.”
The city’s response, however, was to once again send in hundreds of heavily armed officers to forcibly remove men, women, and children from yet another Move house in yet another West Philadelphia neighborhood. Notably, some of the same officers who had participated in the siege in 1978, including one of the officers who had been charged in the beating of Delbert Africa, also participated in the armed response on Osage Avenue.
By the next morning, the Move house was destroyed, and around two city blocks, parts of Osage Avenue and adjacent Pine Street, had burned to the ground. But rather than treat it like a crime scene, city officials dispatched a huge crane to the site, which began scooping at the debris, like so much trash, and dumping it into large piles. It was not until the afternoon, after someone saw a human leg dangling from the jaws of the crane’s bucket, that an assistant medical examiner reported to the scene. There were, in the beginning, at least three city agencies seemingly in charge of the remains of the dead, each using its own system to tag them. The bones were not properly photographed or stored, and, needless to say, much of the other evidence that might have been gathered from the ashes was never collected.
How the scene was handled mattered. Indeed, the stakes couldn’t have been higher. The police claimed that, when they dropped the bomb on 6221 Osage, they simply wanted to dislodge a bunker on the roof. They had never wanted to ignite the whole house, they insisted, and were, of course, devastated that people had been killed. The deaths that day had been an accident. But the more details surfaced, the less that the police officers’ claims satisfied the public.
By June, the mayor had appointed the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission on Move to get to the bottom of why the disaster had happened, who was responsible, and how so many people had died. During hearings, it was revealed that the police had known there were cans of gasoline on the roof where they dropped the explosives. Then came the disturbing testimony of the fire commissioner, William C. Richmond: once the fire had begun, Richmond said, the police commissioner, Gregore Sambor, instructed him to let it burn.
Most troublingly, there was a real possibility that these remains might show that Move members hadn’t died by fire at all. It could be that some people in the house had been shot to death trying to flee the inferno, by members of the Philadelphia Police Department, who were now saying that this had all been a terrible accident.
As 6221 Osage Avenue crackled and began collapsing and crashing down, terrifying the people who were huddled in the basement, a boy named Birdie Africa managed to escape. He told the commission that the police had indeed been shooting at his family as they tried to flee the burning row house.
“It was not until someone saw a human leg dangling from the jaws of the crane’s bucket, that an assistant medical examiner reported to the scene.”
Birdie had been cowering under water-soaked blankets with his dogs and the other children—Delisha, Tree, Phil, and Tomaso, he said. They were all crying. Screaming, he said. And the air was growing thick with smoke. It was getting so hot that, soon, three grownups, Conrad, Ramona, and Birdie’s mother, Rhonda, knew they had to get out. They started yelling “The kids’ coming out!” over and over again, and trying to walk the kids from the basement into the back alley. But each time, Birdie said, “there was gunfire around so we couldn’t get out,” and they were driven back into the basement.
Birdie, who was thirteen, was tiny for his age, and he had suffered terrible burns on his body. It was hard to fathom why he would be lying. And, besides, he wasn’t the only person who had managed to make it out alive. Ramona Africa had escaped, too. She was also covered in burns, but she had been handcuffed before being allowed to go to the hospital. She had not been permitted to speak to Birdie, yet she told investigators the same story that he had. “We were hollering out that we’re coming out, we’re bringing the children out,” she said. “The children were hollering, you know, that they were coming out, that we’re bringing them out. But that’s not what the cops wanted. Because we know they heard us. And the instant they saw us at the doorway, saw anybody coming out, they immediately opened fire.”
“We were hollering out that we’re coming out.”
When the remains were first recovered, they were under the authority of the city’s medical examiner’s office, which recruited Alan Mann to conduct his analysis. But after the Special Investigation Commission on Move was appointed, the medical examiner’s office was told to turn them over to the forensic experts who would be working with that investigative body. Along with two others, the commission had hired Ali Z. Hameli, a pathologist who was famous at the time for having helped identify the remains of the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
Hameli’s team worked to identify all of the Move remains and concluded that there were six adults and five children, naming all of them, and later testified that evidence of gunshots had been found in three sets of remains. The remains that had been known as “G” were identified as those of the twelve-year-old Melissa (Delisha) Orr Africa, and the special commission’s forensic experts confirmed that, in her arm bone, they had clearly seen “one metal fragment consistent with double-ought (‘double 0’) buckshot or lead in a jacketed bullet.” A Philadelphia County grand jury later convened to determine whether any officers had indeed shot members of Move to death, and chose not to indict them.
The news that the victims had been shot at did not sit well with citizens sympathetic to the Move family, and Hameli’s identification of the remains did not sit well with Mann. In the examination he had conducted on those same remains a few months earlier, he had thought there was one more adult, and one fewer child. Specifically he had issues with Hameli’s team’s characterization of the remains marked as B-1 as an adolescent girl. Mann reëxamined the remains and issued a second report, on November 14, 1985, making clear that his opinion had not changed. When this second attempt was reported in the press, Hameli, too, reëxamined the remains, and invited new forensics experts to conduct their own examinations as well. To a one, those examinations corroborated Hameli’s team’s findings.
“Evidence of gunshots had been found in three sets of remains.”
Despite the drama surrounding Mann’s report, by the time that the move forensic inquiry had concluded, not only had myriad scientists laid eyes on the bones of B-1 but a consensus had been reached that they were those of a female adolescent. On January 23, 1986, Philadelphia’s assistant medical examiner, Robert Segal, wrote to the special commission’s staff director to confirm that he was in receipt of a recent report that “strongly supports Dr. Hameli’s conclusions” that the victim was “between 12 and 17 years,” and conceding that “it would be unreasonable for me to reject these findings in light of the evidence that is available at this time.”
By the close of the official move inquiry, official documents related to the investigation, including one of its final legal documents—the report of the Philadelphia County grand jury that had been convened to decide if anyone would be indicted as a result of the deaths at Osage Avenue—had identified B-1 not simply as a teen-ager, nor just as a girl, but specifically as belonging to Katricia Dotson, who, in life, had been called Tree Africa.
In reaching this conclusion, the commission did not rely on forensic reports alone. They also had the eyewitness account of Birdie Africa, who had told authorities, in no uncertain terms, that his friend Tree had been right there with him that terrible morning, when he and all of the other kids were trying so desperately to escape the smoke-filled basement, but the sound of gunfire had kept driving them back. The chairman of the commission asked Birdie, “When the police got you after you finally got out, did they ask you anything about whether or not there were any kids still in the house or were there any other grownups still in house?” Birdie nodded and said, “I said yes.” “Do you remember who it was that was still in the house?” they asked. “Tree,” Birdie answered emphatically, and then continued, “Tree, Netta, and Tomaso and Melissa and the big people.”
And so, even if not a single forensic scientist had examined the bones of B-1, logic seemed to dictate that B-1 was Tree Africa. All of the other victims had been accounted for.
Ultimately, it was agreed, and officially recorded, that B-1 was Katricia (Tree) Dotson. But what happened to the Move remains in the wake of the investigation of the bombing and the resolution of the legal proceedings is murky at best. It did appear, until recent revelations, that family members were given the remains of Tree and Netta, and had buried them at a funeral in December of 1985. In 1986, the state said that it buried the remains of Phil, Tomaso, and Delisha. But, now, not only has it been revealed that the remains which were identified as Tree’s have been in the Penn Museum but one former museum intern has reported that the institution may have some of Delisha’s remains as well. (The museum said that it is investigating the matter.) And now we are told that the medical examiner’s office has held the remains of other Move victims, without anyone’s knowledge or consent.
“What happened to the Move remains in the wake of the investigation of the bombing and the resolution of the legal proceedings is murky at best.”
Delisha’s mother, Janet Africa, only recently came home after serving more than forty years in prison on charges stemming from the 1978 Move siege. Tree and Netta’s mother, Consuewella Africa, was also imprisoned when her daughters were killed. “Our children were murdered thrice over,” she said. “The first time when the bomb was dropped. Then when they were buried. And now with the bones.”
Three weeks into this sordid story, the question of how the bones recognized as Tree’s ended up in a museum remains unanswered. To be sure, because such outrage and grief has been expressed, we know more than we did originally. Alan Mann now says that Robert Segal, of the medical examiner’s office, asked him to continue investigating the identity of the bones, but no documentation of this request has emerged, and neither Segal nor the office has responded to requests for comment. Mann also says that he tried several times to reach members of Move, in the hopes of identifying and returning the remains, but Consuewella Africa said that no one ever called her: “Nobody called any of the mothers. All of this was done without our consent.”
Mann stored the remains at the Penn Museum, but the university says that it was never given custody of the bones, as a gift or on loan, and that it is currently investigating the matter. When I spoke to Christopher Woods, who became director of the museum last month, he told me that when he learned that the remains were there, it was immediately clear to him that they should be returned to Tree’s family. In his view, it was absolutely wrong not to do so decades ago. The week before the first press reports about the remains, Janet Monge, at the request of the museum, returned the remains to Mann; Woods then arranged for them to be stored at a Philadelphia funeral home. Consuewella Africa said that she has not spoken to the funeral home, but that she and other Move members will now discuss the situation and decide what to do.
There are many outstanding questions about the remains that were named as Tree Africa’s. But perhaps the most vital is why so many people accepted, without corroboration, the claim that they hadn’t been identified. Why, in this country, do we just accept what those with prestige and power tell us about an event for which they must account?
“It was immediately clear to Woods that the remains should be returned to Tree’s family.”
The long-term costs of elevating the statements of the prestigious and the powerful over testimonies of the traumatized are high, indeed. When white residents burned Tulsa’s Black Wall Street to the ground, in 1921, Black Oklahomans lost everything they had worked generations to build. But because white officials got to explain away what happened at the time, that massacre was largely unknown to the general public until the late nineties. In 1931, when two white women accused nine Black boys of raping them on a train passing through northern Alabama, their version of events left the Scottsboro boys fighting to avoid execution. In 1971, when state officials told the nation that prisoners at the Attica State Correctional Facility, who had led an uprising for more humane conditions, had killed hostages on the day that troopers retook the prison, it wasn’t just that this completely false story was printed on the front pages of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times; this lie incited what a judge later called an “orgy of violence” on almost thirteen hundred stripped, severely wounded, terrified men, completely at the mercy of captors who were hell-bent on revenge.
This week marked the thirty-sixth anniversary of the day that the Philadelphia police bombed 6221 Osage Avenue, and the day that Tree Africa tried to escape. Let us, at least, try to tell the full story of how her remains ended up in a museum. Indeed, if we are ever to hope that any real justice might actually follow the horrific fate that befell her back in 1985, we must make sure that her story gets told as she, and those around her, actually experienced it. And we might start by saying her name.
Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan. She is the author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2017, and is at work on a book about the MOVE bombing.
This article previously appeared in The New Yorker.
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