University to memorialize remains found 2 decades ago

Zoë Dehmer
Staff Writer 

VCU may memorialize the remains of 53 bodies that were found in an underground well outside of the Egyptian building on the MCV campus nearly two decades ago.

Professor and chairperson of the African American Studies Department, Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., founded a committee that calls for a medical school scholarship fund and the erection of a monument outside the Egyptian building. The bodies were stolen and sold to medical students for dissection in the 19th century, then dumped in the well.

The committee, led by Utsey and Kevin Allison, president Michael Rao’s senior assistant, had been primarily in the planning stages until they held a meeting this September to discuss how to move forward with the project.

“I’m recommending a medical school scholarship fund for the descendent community, which means African American descendents in Richmond whose ancestors are likely in that well,” Utsey said. “I also want a monument outside the Egyptian building acknowledging the contribution of these folks and these bodies, although against their will.”

However, the decision is ultimately up to the community steering committee.

Rachel Miller, co-president of the Health Care Disparities Student Interest Group, said she fully stands by Utsey’s belief that Richmond should be aware of the challenging history that supports the capability of present-day medicine.

An overhaul of the curriculum for medical students at the VCU School of Medicine this past year eliminated the elective course that students could take to learn about health care disparities. Miller and a group of other medical students felt a duty to further education on the subject.

“I was really surprised at the turnout of the medical student body,” Miller said. “We started screening Dr. Utsey’s ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ and I think over one-third of the first-year medical students came out to see it and learn more about it.”

In his documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies,” which premiered in September 2011, Utsey discussed those remains and the shocking history that led to their abandonment.

In the 19th century following the end of slavery, black cemeteries in Richmond were less protected and held less community interest than white cemeteries. As a result, African Americans were often exhumed and sold as cadavers to be used for anatomical dissection and research, Utsey said.

“They weren’t targeting black people out of some racist hatred, it was convenience and availability, but that’s what happened,” Utsey said.

After students dissected the bodies, the remains were discarded in a well next to the Egyptian building, on the former campus of the Medical College of Virginia.

The well was sealed over and the bones sat undisturbed until 1994, when construction workers at the Egyptian building discovered the remains.

“When it was discovered in 1994, as I understand it, VCU didn’t do the right thing at the time,” Utsey said. “When you discover bones you’re supposed to stop and do an investigation. First, forensic to see if it’s a crime scene. If it’s not a crime scene then it’s a historical site, so you have to bring in the department of historical services to do their thing. That didn’t happen. In fact, construction didn’t even stop.”

Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., was  VCU’s president at the time the bones were discovered.

“Trani was at the construction site yelling at the anthropologist to hurry up and get out of there because he wanted construction to go on,” Utsey said. “So he had no interest in doing the right things. There was discussion with the Department of Historic Services and Trani and lawyers at that point but as I hear from people that were there, VCU indicated that they weren’t going to comply.”

Ultimately, some of the bones were removed, some were covered and all efforts to get the rest of the remains out of the well were abandoned. The remains are still there today.

Two weeks before the release of his documentary in 2011, Utsey met with president Michael Rao and the two discussed a steering committee of community members unaffiliated with VCU that will decide how to properly memorialize the remains.

Miller said although the School of Medicine is adding elements of health care disparities education to the new curriculum, the student interest group further suggested to administration that watching Utsey’s documentary should be required of all incoming students.

Miller said VCU medical students in particular need to be aware of the history that has in part led them to be interested in medical science.

“VCU has a commitment to serving the underserved. A lot of the patients that we see in the hospital are from neighboring communities and have faced some sort of health care disparity,” he said.

Miller described the complicated history of grave robbing for anatomical research as having “a residual impact” on Richmond’s communities, that “has pretty much edged into the psyche of a lot of African Americans and a lot of patients.”

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