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A Solemn and Sacred Ceremony: Welcoming Home Our Ancestors

"The time is always right to do what is right." – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear Colleagues-Friends,

Yesterday, we had the privilege and honor of participating in a very special recognition and long-overdue event as we welcomed home the ancestral remains discovered in the East Marshall Street Well.

In 1994, human remains were found in a well dating to the 19th century during the excavation of the construction site for the Kontos Medical Sciences Building. Because the identities of these people was lost due to a problematic and difficult history, the remains were sent to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. for analysis, which revealed that these individuals were largely of African descent.

Apart from that examination, the discovery went largely unaddressed until VCU Professor Dr. Shawn Utsey included it in his documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry,” which examined the issue of grave robbing and the use of black cadavers in medical education during the 19th century, a vilification that sadly occurred here and at many other medical schools across the nation.

In 2013, the university initiated a planning committee of community and university members to guide what is known as the East Marshall Street Well Project. This Family Representative Council held a series of community forums to gather input, and through further study, provided their recommendations to President Rao last year on the best way to analyze, memorialize and rebury the remains.

Staff, students and community members holding a moment of respect [View Image]

These individuals were not given the respect or dignity they deserved in life or in death, and addressing these wrongs is paramount to our community. As a first step, a group of our students traveled to Washington, D.C. this past weekend to undertake a full review of the ancestral remains housed at the Smithsonian to ensure their complete return. I am always proud of our medical students, and in this instance, their engagement and presence was so powerful and meaningful.

Before departing for Richmond, members of the Family Representative Council covered the boxes containing the remains in African fabrics, and along with our students, took part in a brief ceremony. Then, during a program held yesterday at the Kontos Building, VCU faculty, staff, students and community members had the opportunity to honor and demonstrate our respect for these individuals who gave so much and unfortunately received so little.

It was a solemn and sacred occasion and a poignant opportunity to welcome home our brothers and sisters. You can learn more about the event and see photos here. We are grateful to our leadership and communications team for engaging with our community to facilitate such a fitting tribute.

The remains of these 44 adults and nine children are now housed at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources as the Research and the Interment-Memorialization Committees continue their work in putting in place the recommendations of the Family Representative Council. Once these recommendations have been completed, we will move forward with interment and the development of a community memorial.

We anticipate another opportunity during the coming spring semester to gather for a community update on the work of the implementation committees. Thank you to everyone involved for your commitment to this project and for all you have and continue to do to ensure the appropriate recognition of these individuals. Thank you for helping us honor their legacy, as well as appreciate, acknowledge and recognize the lessons they will continue to teach us. They renew our hope in humanity and remind us that every person deserves our respect.

We learn from our history to be stronger in our future.

Respectfully,

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Peter F. Buckley, M.D.

Dean, VCU School of Medicine

Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, VCU Health Systems

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