The Hidden History behind an infamous grave robber who lived and worked at VCU

Black History Month

Richmond, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Commonwealth University held a ceremony late last year honoring the human remains that were found in a well on the Medial Center Campus 25 years ago.

During that time, construction crews accidentally unearthed body parts in an underground well at Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus. The remains were tested by the Smithsonian Institution and found to be predominately of African descent. 

There is now a push to use DNA Testing to connect those remains to people who currently live in Central Virginia.

According to Shawn O. Utsey, Ph.D, VCU’s Chairman Department of African American Studies, many medical colleges hired grave robbers who primarily targeted black cemeteries. The bodies would be used by medical students who needed dissection material.

Genealogist Lenora McQueen traced her fourth great grandmother, Kitty Carry, to Central Virginia. Further research would lead her to burial grounds at 5th and Hospital streets in Richmond. During that time, Utsey said slave cemeteries were often targeted for fresh cadavers. 

“ I would not want her dug up and dissected and studied,” McQueen told 8 News. “I don’t think she would have chosen that for herself.”

In the documentary titled, ‘Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies,’ Professor Utsey shares his research on the life of one famous Richmond grave robber Chris Baker. He lived with his family in the basement of the Egyptian Building at the Medical College of Virginia. Baker was well respected on campus and was often asked to take pictures with the medical students after dissections during the late 1800s/early 1900s.

“Baker had been arrested several times in the act of stealing bodies,” Utsey said. “I learned there was a huge industry in the trade of cadavers, primarily black cadavers.”

A special task force was created by VCU to consider the appropriate next steps for the remains. The committee organized a memorial in the Fall of 2019. However, McQueen believes more needs to be done.

“To think of her ending up at the bottom of the well, I don’t know of anything more disrespectful than being tossed away like trash,” she said.

There are still two other wells filled with body parts positioned underneath VCU Medical School.  There are talks of DNA testing to connect people with the remains at the well. Professor Utsey knows the process could be pricey, but worth it for a community torn apart all in the name of science.

“What advantage did MCV have as a consequence of all the bodies of enslaved people that they had available to them? Professor Utsey offered. “That gave them an advantage over other medical schools that bares out today. We could argue that those black folks are responsible for VCU’s status today. It gave them a jump start and we should acknowledge that by giving back.”

CLICK HERE to read more of Richmond’s ‘Hidden History.’

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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