Virginia Commonwealth University is trying to recover the discarded bones of cadavers used in medical research more than a century ago. But the university still has apologies to make and big questions to answer, says Shawn Utsey, VCU's outspoken chairman of African American Studies.
Utsey has spent years researching how the remains of deceased African-Americans were stolen and used for dissection at the Medical College of Virginia. But his efforts to shine a spotlight on this history, including a documentary, left VCU President Michael Rao feeling "ambushed," Utsey says.
Utsey met with Rao in the fall. "When we met, he was angry," Utsey says. "And he expressed his anger." Utsey understood how the president felt, but says that he's angry too — over how the university has historically treated the bodies of African-Americans.
In 1996, on the site of what is now the university's medical-sciences building, construction workers discovered a well shaft filled with formaldehyde-smelling water, old medical equipment and human bones, believed to be the remains of cadavers. Some of these bones were warehoused at VCU, some were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, and some were left in the well.
President Rao has appointed a member of his staff, Kevin Allison, to figure out how to bring the remains home from the Smithsonian and then, with the help of the community, memorialize them in an appropriate way.
"I'm excited that he has seized this opportunity, and that we are going to have full transparency," Utsey says from Ghana, where he's on a six-month sabbatical. But VCU still has work to do, he says. The university must follow the lead of the College of William & Mary and assemble a committee to explore the bigger question: Did the Medical College of Virginia ever own slaves, or use slave labor? VCU has both an academic and a moral duty to find out, Utsey says: "We shouldn't be afraid to engage in these kinds of histories."