Sept. 24, 2021
‘This is sacred ground’: Panels commemorate 19th-century human remains found in an MCV Campus well
The panels, unveiled at the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, are “an important step toward reclaiming the full humanity of our ancestors.”
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Virginia Commonwealth University leaders and members of the East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council, planning committee and implementation committee unveiled four panels today that detail the story of the 19th-century human remains discovered in an abandoned well on the MCV Campus during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building in 1994.
“This afternoon, we’ve gathered to unveil a set of panels that tell the story of a group of people whose identities have been lost to a problematic and difficult history,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “Today and in the past they have brought us together in a hopeful opportunity to deepen our understanding and to recognize their humanity and to honor and demonstrate our respect for the lives of these ancestors.”
The panels are located outside the Kontos Auditorium, 1217 E. Marshall St. and they focus on four specific themes:
The 1844 origin in which medical students and faculty at Hampden-Sydney College (forerunner of the VCU School of Medicine) practiced medical procedures on unlawfully obtained and mostly Black cadavers, which were discarded in nearby wells when they were no longer needed.
The 1994 discovery of a well and human remains during construction of the Kontos Building. The remains are believed to be largely of African descent. Archaeologists were only given a short time to examine the site and the remains were scooped out by backhoes before construction continued. The remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for further study.
Renewed interest in the remains in 2011 generated by the release of “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies,” a film by VCU professor Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., and the development of an analytical report by forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley, Ph.D., and Kari Bruwelheide. The efforts detailed the practice of grave-robbing and the treatment of the remains during construction of the Kontos Building.
The 2019 return of the ancestral remains from the Smithsonian to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources until final plans for interment and permanent memorialization are completed.
Michael Rao, Ph.D., president of VCU and VCU Health System, established an East Marshall Street Well Planning Committee in 2013 to begin the path toward reconciliation. That committee helped the area’s African American community form a Family Representative Council to symbolically represent the descendants of those found in the well.
“The planning process that was put in place resulted in a series of five community consultations that took place in 2015 to gather community input and recommendations,” Rao said. “These discussions led to the formation of the Family Representative Council, a group of community members who have stood in as ‘family’ and represented the descendent community to speak on behalf of the individuals whose remains were discovered and to make recommendations about the need for additional study, memorialization, and reburial. We would not be here today without their wisdom and dedication.”
Carmen Foster, Ed.D., spoke on behalf of the Family Representative Council at the panel unveiling.
“Today’s East Marshall Street Well panel unveiling is an important step toward reclaiming the full humanity of our ancestors — those unearthed 27 years ago as well as those likely still buried beneath the Kontos Building,” Foster said. “The bodies of these children, women and men were taken, not given, for the development of medical knowledge. From this day forward, every person who enters the Kontos Building will know that this is sacred ground.”
Miles McConner, a VCU medical student, accompanied the Family Representative Council to the Smithsonian to bring the remains back to Richmond in November 2019. He recalls how the experience strengthened his desire to become a physician.
“Throughout that day and the ceremonies that followed, there was an energy that was there — a presence that filled that space,” McConner said. “I could not stop thinking about what drew me to pursue medicine and how there is still work needed to be done. Not just for the Well Project but for medicine as a whole.”
The panel unveiling is part of the VCU Office of Health Equity’s History and Health Program, which launched in March 2021 with the initial series focusing on racial equity. The multi-part virtual series began a journey of racial healing through events that examine and challenge our understanding of VCU’s role in the history of Richmond and the nation. The series recordings and modules are free and available for viewing.
“As individuals enter this building where students learn contemporary health sciences practices, it is important that they understand the significance of this space,” said Art Kellermann, M.D., senior vice president for health sciences at VCU and CEO of VCU Health System. “We want to thank members of the implementation subcommittee who worked to develop the panels that tell the story of the East Marshall Street Well and the history of this space.”
More information about the East Marshall Street Well Project and efforts to further study, memorialize and rebury the remains is available at emsw.vcu.edu.
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