More than two decades ago, the remains of several dozen people were discovered in a 19th Century well near the Egyptian Building on MCV’s downtown campus. VCU is now bringing together the community to determine how the remains should be studied, memorialized and reburied. For Virginia Currents, Catherine Komp reports.
Learn More: The next Community Consultations are scheduled for May 2, 15, and 30th, 8:30 to Noon at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Learn more about these meetings, and find information and resources at the East Marshall Street Well Project website. Follow the initiative on Facebook, Twitter and by using #VCUWellProject.
Transcript: Remains from forty-four adults and nine children, primarily of African descent, were discovered in 1994 during a partial excavation of the 19th Century well. VCU was constructing a new medical sciences building at the time, and the administration blocked archaeologists' attempts to properly excavate the site. Instead, they gave them a weekend to examine a portion removed by construction workers using a backhoe. VCU Professor Shawn Utsey’s 2011 documentary “Until the Well Runs Dry,” brought attention to the Medical College’s history of stealing bodies from black cemeteries for use in medical research.
The documentary also shed light on the fact that the university hadn’t yet done anything about the remains. Packed away in boxes, these individuals were still waiting for a proper burial. In 2013, VCU President Michael Rao invited university and community members to form a planning committee. That committee recently launched a series of “Community Consultations” focusing on further scholarship, memorialization and reburial with dignity.
Quincy Byrdsong: When I consider the long history of VCU, I’m incredibly proud of so many things that we’ve done particularly the scientific and medical advances made on our campus that have saved and continue to save countess people from all backgrounds. However, VCU is not proud of the circumstances surrounding these human remains.
At the first gathering, VCU Vice President for Health Sciences Strategic Initiatives and Engagment Quincy Byrdsong told participants that the university acknowledges its role in this history and its responsibility to create a path forward that honors these individuals.
Byrdsong: So I commit to you today that the legacy of these human beings will not be that they were buried in a well and forgotten, but it will be that they have inspired us to move forward together.
The descendants of these human beings, said Byrdsong, could be neighbors.
Byrdsong: So you stand in as their children. You will be the impassioned advocates and substitutionary voices for the people that we’re honoring today.
The public process is being facilitated by Justice and Sustainability Associates, a DC-based organization that focuses on civic engagement and land use. Their projects include the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the African Burial Ground National Monument. CEO Don Edwards iis facilitating the East Marshall Street Well Community Consultations.
Don Edwards: By the time we get to the fifth consultation and I hope all of you will have participated right through to the end, we are going to have changed history and created new possibilities for the future. And that isn’t so much about what we do to memorialize the human remains that this project is discussing, it’s really about learning how to be responsible for each others' lives.
The Community Consultations are partially about learning, but there’s a strong emphasis on meaningful civic engagement. Each meeting includes two 30 minute break-out sessions, where small groups are guided by a facilitator. In the first session, participants are discussing the research that’s been conducted so far and whether more should be done.
Breakout Session: ...it happened in 1994, I’m still curious what’s been going on since then.
There’s a scribe at each table, transmitting notes in real time to the “ideas team” who’s summarizing all the groups’ feedback. After the first discussion wraps up, Edwards presents key responses to the entire group:
Edwards: So questions about research: more on what kinds of research has been done; what are the options now related to DNA testing; are adequate records available from cemeteries and funeral homes.
Edwards says this discussion format is designed especially for difficult topics, creating a space to encourage civil discourse.
Edwards: We want to create a vehicle for people to talk about sobering and heavy, potentially emotional things but to reduce the idea of being in a big room, where you have to talk to the whole room. So small groups are easier for people to talk in, having facilitators and scribes removes the “I don’t matter” or “My comments don’t matter” - everybody’s comments are being captured and the facilitator is ensuring everyone’s engaged.
They also limit the topics addressed during the break out sessions, says Edwards to avoid overwhelming participants.
Edwards: That helps people know I can handle this, this is not above my head, I don’t have to have a PHD. We really want to have a low threshold for access. And the last part is for us having people know that we’re doing to repeat this design, makes it possible for them to say, “Okay I can do this, I can stay involved in this.” So those are some of the things that matter. I think we also however want to communicate that you can talk about these kinds of things in a civil way. A lot of people come out to meetings, if you’ve been to enough of them you know that oftentimes people show up at meetings only to complain, say what they have to say, they don’t want to listen to anyone else. So we wanted to set a different context but also show a different model.
Lorraine Jones: This is a tremendous effort, I’m impressed with VCU, we’re making progress...
Jones: I want more people. I want this to advance. This is an important element of our proof that we’re civilized, that we look back at those whose skulls support us at this height, so that we can continue to grow.
Edith “Cookie” Herd: How many people from surrounding counties are included in that well?
Standing next to Jones is Edith “Cookie” Herd from Williamsburg. This topic is a familiar one for Herd. Back home, she works with William and Mary’s Lemon Project, an initiative to study the College’s history with slavery and discrimination and to build bridges with the larger community.
Herd: I knew nothing about the wells so I got a good introduction. And one thing I’d like to see happen is for it to be forecast as Richmond and surrounding counties, because the more people we get involved from outside, when they see that heading, they might say, “Some of my people might have been put in that well.” And I think we can draw more people into this.
Participants also connected this issue to current disparities in health and access to care. And they questioned how the community can engage and honor descendant families whose relatives made significant contributions to the advancement of medical science. The next meetings, taking place on May 2, 15, and 30th, will build on these discussions. They’ll also be used to identify community members to serve on a Family Representative Council. At the end of this process, that Council and the Well Project’s Planning Committee will make recommendations to VCU about further study, reburial and memorialization. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.