There was very little that could be said about the 19 people who were eulogized on Saturday morning in a service at the University of Pennsylvania. Their names were lost, and not much about their lives was known beyond the barest facts: an old age spent in the poorhouse, a problem with cavities. They were Black people who had died in obscurity over a century ago, now known almost entirely by the skulls they left behind. Even some of these scant facts have been contested.
Much more could be said about what led to the service. “This moment,” said the Rev. Jesse Wendell Mapson, a local pastor involved in planning the commemoration and interment of the 19, “has not come without some pain, discomfort and tension.”
On this everyone could agree.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, like cultural and research institutions worldwide, has been grappling with a legacy of plunder, trying to decide what to do about artifacts and even human bones that were collected from people and communities against their will and often without their knowledge.
The museum plans to repatriate hundreds of craniums from all over the world, but the process has been fraught from the beginning. Its first step — the entombment at a nearby cemetery of the skulls of Black Philadelphians found in the collection — has drawn heavy criticism, charged by activists and some experts with being rushed and opaque.