Commemorative resolution sparks debate

Chris Baker, a “resurrectionist,” as body snatchers or grave robbers were called, lived with his family in the basement of the Egyptian Building on the Medical College of Virginia campus. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Tompkins-McCaw Library.

Zoë Dehmer
News Editor

A joint resolution proposed in the Virginia General Assembly to memorialize the contributions of African American cadavers to the training of 19th century physicians in Richmond has an unlikely critic.

Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., a VCU professor and chairperson of the African American Studies Department, is criticizing the resolution proposed by sponsor democrat Sen. Henry L. Marsh III’s SJ 84 (D-Richmond). Delegate Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond) sponsored an identical bill in the House of Delegates.

Utsey spearheaded research about graverobbing in Richmond and the discovery of the bones of 53 African Americans found in a well outside of the Egyptian Building on the MCV campus nearly two decades ago. He released his findings in a documentary in November 2011.

“These were enslaved people. How do you talk about the contributions of enslaved people?” Utsey said. “How do you talk about the contributions of enslaved people in the Holocaust to science in Germany? Do you think the Jewish community would allow that nonsense? Absolutely not. How is that different than talking about the contributions that enslaved people here made, people who didn’t even own their bodies?”

The resolution focuses on the role of Chris Baker, a janitor at the Medical College of Virginia in the late 1800s. At that time, before acquiring bodies for medical science was legal, it was common for African American employees like Baker to be paid under-the-table to steal bodies that physicians-in-training could use for dissection.

For medical students, human anatomical dissection is a common practice in the teaching of anatomy. Today, you can elect to have your body donated for medical science research when you pass away. Until the late 1800s, however, when Virginia state legislation established the State Anatomical Board, it was illegal to obtain human bodies for dissection in Virginia.

In response to Richmond’s history with graverobbing, the resolution sponsored by Marsh is his “attempt to help VCU memorialize the cadavers and bring it to public awareness what happened,” said Valerie Braxton-Williams, Marsh’s legislative aide. Marsh was unavailable for comment as of press time.

Utsey, however, said he finds the sentiment in the resolution to be inconsistent with his perspective and “inappropriate.”

“This whole idea of contributions to science is like trying to spin it like something great happened … it’s a sham. That’s what it is,” Utsey said.

The story of Chris Baker and body-snatching in Richmond was brought into question in November 2011 when Utsey released his research and documentary “Until the Well Runs Dry.”

In the 19th century following the end of slavery, grave robbing targeted bodies from African American cemeteries because they were less protected and held less community interest than white cemeteries, Utsey said.

In his documentary, Utsey revisits the discovery of the bones from the well at the Medical College of Virginia. The bones were later found to have been from the bodies of African Americans, according to a report conducted by the Smithsonian Institute.

The bodies were robbed from their graves by MCV employees like Baker and sold for anatomical dissection at MCV, Utsey said.

Shortly after the release of his film, Utsey approached VCU president Michael Rao, Ph.D., with concerns about what VCU should do to properly deal with the complicated history. As a result, Rao appointed Kevin Allison, his senior assistant, to lead a group in forming a steering committee to make recommendations to VCU for how to properly memorialize the bones.

Utsey said he thinks in addition to presenting a twisted perspective of the history in the resolution, writing the resolution to begin with is “a compromise of the duties and responsibilities of the committee,” referring to the VCU group he is a member of that is responsible for forming a descendant community steering committee to decide how to move forward.

The steering committee that will make those recommendations is to consist of the ‘descendant community,’ or African American descendants in Richmond whose ancestors were likely in the well.

Allison said that although people do have different opinions of how to acknowledge the matter, VCU intends for the conversation to be ongoing and open to the public.

“Our plan was already for it to be a public, open process,” Allison said. “This is not an easy issue and it’s not an issue in which everyone has the same perspective.”

Since the introduction of the resolution, Allison said the planning committee members have not had the opportunity to meet to voice their concerns.

Utsey said though he is still undecided, the resolution makes him hesitant to continue to participate in the planning committee that he helped to initiate.

“Some people are uncomfortable with not having the front seat,” Utsey said. “I’ll probably resign the committee, unless the person that advanced that bill resigns.”

The planning committee decided at its last meeting that future meetings would be open to the public, said VCU spokesperson Mike Porter in an email.

The planning committee will meet on Tuesday, Jan. 28, from 1-3 p.m. in the Forum Room, located on the first floor of the University Student Commons, according to a University Public Affairs statement. The meeting is open to the public and there will be an opportunity for those interested to make comments at the end of the planning committee meeting.

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