VCU unveils panels commemorating 19th century human remains found in well


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Commonwealth University unveiled four panels Friday commemorating the 19th century human remains that were found in an abandoned well on its MCV Campus in 1994.

The human remains, belonging to people of mostly African descent, were illegally obtained in the 1800s by medical students and faculty at Hampden-Sydney College, a forerunner of the VCU School of Medicine, for medical research and procedures. When the remains were no longer needed, they were discarded in the well.

The East Marshall Street Well Project and VCU leaders held an event Friday showcasing the panels, which are located outside the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building’s auditorium. The remains were discovered during the construction of the building in 1994.

“This afternoon, we’ve gathered to unveil a set of panels that tell the story of a group of people whose identities have been lost to a problematic and difficult history,” said Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “Today and in the past they have brought us together in a hopeful opportunity to deepen our understanding and to recognize their humanity and to honor and demonstrate our respect for the lives of these ancestors.”

In a release, VCU shared the themes of each panel:

  • The 1844 origin in which medical students and faculty at Hampden-Sydney College (forerunner of the VCU School of Medicine) practiced medical procedures on unlawfully obtained and mostly Black cadavers, which were discarded in nearby wells when they were no longer needed.
  • The 1994 discovery of a well and human remains during construction of the Kontos Building. The remains are believed to be largely of African descent. Archaeologists were only given a short time to examine the site and the remains were scooped out by backhoes before construction continued. The remains were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for further study.
  • Renewed interest in the remains in 2011 generated by the release of “Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies,” a film by VCU professor Shawn Utsey, Ph.D., and the development of an analytical report by forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley, Ph.D., and Kari Bruwelheide. The efforts detailed the practice of grave-robbing and the treatment of the remains during construction of the Kontos Building.
  • The 2019 return of the ancestral remains from the Smithsonian to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources until final plans for interment and permanent memorialization are completed.

The remains were studied at the Smithsonian Institution before returning to Richmond in 2019. They will remain at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources until the Family Representative Council “works on recommendations for a more permanent memorial.”

The university said in its release that Friday’s unveiling is part of the VCU Office of Health Equity’s History and Health Program, which focuses on racial equity.

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