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Once Used For Medical Research, 19th Century Remains Return To Richmond

Elegba Folklore Society's founder Janine Bell leads members in a spiritual ceremony, honoring the centuries-old remains. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM)

Nineteenth century human remains — belonging to about 55 people of mostly African descent — were brought back to Richmond on Monday. The East Marshall Street Well Project and Virginia Commonwealth University held a ceremony to honor their return. 

Led by the Elegba Folklore Society, a procession of more than a hundred people went to the site of an abandoned well where the bones were discovered 25 years ago. It’s now the entrance to the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building on VCU’s MCV campus. 

The bones were returned to Richmond from the Smithsonian Institute where they were studied.

Dr. Shawn Utsey teaches psychology at VCU. His 2011 documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry,” was the basis for the school’s renewed attention to its history of robbing African Americans’ graves for medical advancements. Utsey said this memorial is a small step towards the university righting its wrongdoings. 

“We’ll never know the extent of the contributions that those bodies made in advancing medical science and putting MCV on the map,” Utsey said. 

These weren’t the only remains to be discarded around VCU’s medical campus. 

“In the 1930s, others were discovered in the basement of the Egyptian Building,” said Dr. Kevin Allison, director of special projects at the university's office of the president. “It’s also possible that there are other wells that could be in the area.” 

Utsey suggests all documented remains should be excavated, identified and properly laid to rest. He also added that he’d like to see VCU set up a scholarship fund for members of the descendant community applying to medical school. 

The remains will be kept at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources while undergoing further analysis, as part of the university's efforts to identify and learn more about them.