MOVE bombing victim remains from Penn have been returned, family says

The university’s investigation into mishandling of victims’ remains from the 1985 bombing is ongoing.

Protesters march outside Penn Museum, with one sign prominent that reads,

Protesters demonstrated in April outside Penn Museum over its handling of MOVE bombing victims' remains. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Thirty-six years after the 1985 bombing, surviving MOVE family members have finally laid to rest the human remains that were for decades held by the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.

“The remains are finally free to move and cycle in the life with Mama,” said Janine Africa, a MOVE member. “That’s what we believe in, that everything goes back to Mama.”

Mama, or the elements of nature, is what others would call God, Janine explained.

The exchange happened after some of the MOVE mothers who lost children in the city-sanctioned bombing reached out to Penn Museum Director Christopher Woods for information. Janine said he met with them in person.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

After filling out some paperwork, the official transfer took place on July 2, when MOVE members went to the Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, according to Janine. The funeral home arranged to pick up the remains from former Penn pathologist Alan Mann’s home, the Tribune reported in late April.

Penn Museum did not offer details but did not deny the transfer had taken place. A spokesperson responded to WHYY News inquiries by saying an update would be posted on the museum website “when the time is right” out of “respect for the Africa Family.”

The remains have been buried by a tree in Bartram’s Garden, Janine said — the same tree where late MOVE member Consuewella Africa requested her ashes be scattered.

Consuewella died in June at age 67. Like others, she believed the remains in question belonged to her daughters Zanetta, 12, and Katricia Africa, 14, who were killed in the 1985 bombing.

Altogether, the May 1985 bombing of the Black liberation group killed 11 people, including five children. City leaders’ decision to let the subsequent fire burn made identifying the remains of the dead a difficult task.

The identity question is what led university researchers to hold the recently-returned remains for so long. It was also the subject of the public online forensics course in which a Penn Museum curator used the human bones as props.

When news broke in April that the universities still held these MOVE remains, protests erupted in West Philadelphia. Penn hired a firm to investigate how the museum mishandled the remains, and why they were held for so long. The investigation is ongoing.

City finalizes investigation team, opens search for new health commissioner

The city has also launched an investigation into mishandling of MOVE remains.

Philadelphia officials announced Monday they had finalized their team, which they said was chosen with input from Africa family members.

Robert Heim of Dechert and Keir Bradford-Grey of Montgomery McCracken — previously Chief Defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia — will act as the attorneys. Heim and Bradford-Grey joined city officials and members of the Africa family on July 1 to discuss the next several months.

The investigation will include looking into the circumstances around a separate set of remains recently discovered at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Philly’s then-health commissioner, Tom Farley, resigned after admitting he ordered these remains destroyed without notifying family members. They did not get destroyed, it turns out — a week later, they were discovered by a city worker in a box labeled “MOVE.”

The city expects the investigation to take up to six months to complete.

At the same time, Philadelphia has retained executive search firm DSS Global, to help find a replacement health chief. (Former deputy Cheryl Bettigole has assumed the acting commissioner duties.) The new commissioner should have “extensive experience working in public health, leadership, and working with diverse, underserved communities, as well as a demonstrated commitment to advancing the department’s health equity agenda,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement.

Additionally, the city is convening a panel of experts that will help it evaluate policies at the Medical Examiner’s Office. Philadelphia is seeking accreditation through the National Association of Medical Examiners, which the office lost in 2003 and has struggled to regain.

Sue Africa, who lost her son Tomaso in the 1985 bombing, said no amount of investigations or policy changes will bring loved ones back.

She said the effort to reform the MEO and identify the remains almost seem moot. For her and other MOVE members, it’s enough to know the remains were found at the site of the bombing.

“Those remains, no matter who they are, are going to be taken care of by us,” Sue told WHYY News, “because our belief is life.”

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal