What you need to know about the desecration of MOVE bombing victims’ remains

Social justice organizers and surviving members of the MOVE family march down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue on May 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Organizers and surviving members of the MOVE family march down the 6200 block of Osage Avenue on May 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It was 36 years ago that city officials targeting The Movement, a Black liberation group, flew a helicopter over a West Philadelphia home and dropped a bomb on top of it — killing 11 people, five of them children.

Officials let the subsequent massive fire burn. More than 60 houses in the predominantly Black neighborhood were reduced to rubble.

More than three decades later, “the scars of the West Philly bombing continue to devastate Philadelphia’s Black community,” Abdul-Aliy Muhammad wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The following timeline illustrates how the revelations surrounding the remains of MOVE bombing victims spurred the resignation of Philadelphia’s top health official, and what questions remain over one of the city’s greatest tragedies.

In this May, 1985 file photo, scores of rowhouses burn in a fire in the west Philadelphia neighborhood. Police dropped a bomb on the militant group MOVE's home on May 13, 1985 in an attempt to arrest members, leading to the burning of scores of homes in the neighborhood. (AP Photo, File)
In this file photo, scores of West Philly rowhouses burn in a fire after police dropped a bomb on the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985. Eleven people were killed, including five children. (AP Photo, File)

Thursday, April 21

Reporting from WHYY’s Billy Penn and The Philadelphia Inquirer reveal that a set of remains — thought to be 12-year-old Delisha Africa and 14-year-old Tree Africa — were held at both the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for decades and studied by their anthropology and archaeology departments, without the Africa family’s knowledge.

The children were inside the MOVE headquarters when Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the Osage Avenue home.

Neither the Medical Examiner’s Office (MEO), the Penn Museum, nor Princeton University seems certain of the remains’ whereabouts.

Friday, April 28

Hundreds of people rally in front of the Penn Museum, urging the university to return remains belonging to children who died in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

“They’ve been doing this to our Black bodies for hundreds of years, in the name of science, in the name of study,” says YahNé Ndgo. “We are not subjects of study, we are human beings!”

Protesters demand answers about how anthropologist Alan Mann, at Penn and at Princeton, had been allowed to hold onto the remains after the MEO tasked him in the ‘80s with trying to identify them.

Black Lives Matter organizer YahNé Ndgo protested outside Penn Museum on April 28, 2021, over the museum’s mistreatment of the remains of children Tree and Delisha Africa who were killed when the city bombed the MOVE organization’s headquarters in 1985. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Organizer YahNé Ndgo protests outside Penn Museum on April 28 over the museum’s mistreatment of the remains believed to belong to children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Thursday, May 13

Mayor Jim Kenney says he learned of a “very disturbing incident” that happened during the first term of his administration in 2017: Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, upon learning that remains found by the MEO belonged to MOVE bombing victims, ordered the remains to be cremated and disposed of, rather than returning them to the Africa family.

“Believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized [Medical Examiner Dr. Sam] Gulino to follow this procedure and dispose of the bones and bone fragments,” Farley says. “I made this decision on my own, without notifying or consulting anyone in the Managing Director’s office or the Mayor’s office, and I take full responsibility for it.”

“I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them.”

Mike Africa Jr. remembers the lives of family members lost in the MOVE bombing
Mike Africa Jr. remembers the lives of family members lost in the MOVE bombing, 36 years later on May 13, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Farley says the reports about the universities’ mishandling of the bombing victims’ remains caused him to reconsider his 2017 decision.

Farley’s resignation is announced on the 36th anniversary of the MOVE bombing.

Mayor Jim Kenney also announces that Medical Examiner Dr. Sam Gulino has been placed on leave, pending the results of an investigation. The city says it has retained law firm Dechert LLP to conduct a full review to “present a complete picture that’s been missing for far too long,” per Kenney.

Protesters carrying signs with the names of the 11 members of the MOVE family
Protesters carrying signs with the names of the 11 members of the MOVE family who lost their lives on May 13, 1985, march down Pine Street in West Philadelphia in 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the director of the Health Department’s Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention, is appointed acting health commissioner.

On Thursday evening, hundreds march in West Philadelphia to remember the lives lost in the 1985 MOVE bombing.

Mike Africa Jr., addressing a crowd of supporters, continues to call for answers. “We have to rise up and fight the system,” Mike says, “and push for accountability.”

Friday, May 14

In a statement late Friday evening, Kenney announces that the remains of MOVE bombing victims — thought to have been cremated and disposed of four years ago — have been found.

Medical Examiner staff told the Managing Director’s Office that a box labeled MOVE was discovered in a refrigerated section of the MEO.

“I am relieved that these remains were found and not destroyed, however I am also very sorry for the needless pain that this ordeal has caused the Africa family,” Kenney says in a statement.

In an Instagram post reacting to Farley’s confession and resignation, Mike Africa Jr. writes: On May 13th 1985 Philly police bombed my family. Today May 13th 2021 they told us more members of our family’s remains were in a drawer and instead of turning them over to us the[y] incinerated them. These rotten perpetrators need to be held accountable for their crimes against my family.”

Sunday, May 16

Kenney lays out a brief outline of how his administration plans to move forward in light of the latest developments, as an independent investigation into the city’s handling of the MOVE bombing victims’ remains unfolds.

“The painful anniversary, coupled with the mishandling of some of the victims’ remains, renews the traumas of 1985 for many,” Kenney says in a press release. “We are getting to the bottom of many different disturbing questions, including why these remains were held for decades, and why they were still held after being directed to be cremated.”

Pam Africa described police abuse her family experienced at a protest outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021, over the museum’s mistreatment of the remains of children Tree and Delisha Africa who were killed when Philadelphia police dropped explosives on MOVE's headquarters in 1985. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
Pam Africa describes police abuse her family experienced at a protest outside the Penn Museum on April 28, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Once the independent investigation is complete, the city will return the remains to the family, in accordance with their wishes.

The city plans to review best practices regarding the MEO in terms of racial equity, saying “an overhaul of MEO policies and procedures is certainly on the table.” Additionally, the administration will engage “diverse stakeholders” over how the city commemorates the MOVE bombing in the long term.

As Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole takes over on an interim basis, the city is working on its search for a permanent health commissioner.

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