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Remains Of Black Children Killed In MOVE Bombing Cannot Be Located

Mourners of MOVE members killed in the 1985 bombing by the Philadelphia police stand in front of their former headquarters. They raise their arms with the Black Power salute during the funeral procession for leader John Africa.
Bettmann Archive
Mourners of MOVE members killed in the 1985 bombing by the Philadelphia police stand in front of their former headquarters. They raise their arms with the Black Power salute during the funeral procession for leader John Africa.

The remains of two Black children killed in an infamous 1985 Philadelphia police bombing have gone missing, with two Ivy League universities unable to confirm their whereabouts.

City lawmakers last year issued a formal apology for the attack on MOVE, a Black liberation advocacy group. The airstrike on a house occupied by MOVE members destroyed an entire block, reducing all the houses to rubble.

Short for The Movement, MOVE began as a collective devoted to issues from police brutality to environmentalism. The group's relationship with local law enforcement quickly soured, with several altercations throughout the 1970s. Tensions heightened after a 1978 eviction attempt in which a police officer was killed. MOVE asserted the officer was a victim of friendly fire; officials claimed he was purposely shot. Nine members of the organization, who all took the last name Africa, were sentenced to prison. Two died behind bars, and the rest have since been released on parole, after serving 40 years.

In May 1985, after attempts to evict the group from its home in West Philadelphia, the city flew a helicopter over it and dropped a bomb. The explosives resulted in a raging fire, which the fire department refused to control. Various accounts suggest that police began shooting at members attempting to flee. Only two people escaped, and six adults and five children died in the blaze.

Smoke billows over rowhouses in the West Philadelphia after the police bombed the home of the radical African American organization MOVE during a standoff. Police on horseback and emergency vehicles block off a street as residents walk towards the scene.
/ Bettmann Archive
Bettmann Archive
Smoke billows over rowhouses after Philadelphia police bombed the home of Black liberation advocacy group MOVE during a standoff.

A forensic pathologist produced reports on the human remains found in the debris, including two sets of bones identified as belonging to Tree Africa, 14, and Delisha Africa, 12.

Mike Africa Jr., a current MOVE member who spent his childhood with the group, remembered Tree as fearless, someone who would find the tallest tree in the park and race to its peak. "No one could climb higher than she could," he said in an interview this month. "She never feared the way up." Delisha, he said, was always right behind her.

After an investigation into the bombing, the remains were given to anthropologist Alan Mann by the city Medical Examiner's Office, according to the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Commissionletters, for further analysis. At the time, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania. When Mann transferred to Princeton University in 2001, he reportedly took the bones with him.

Researchers connected to the schools also used the girls' bones in an online forensic anthropology teaching video, without permission of the relatives' families.

That the MOVE bones were still being held by the universities was not widely known before revelations published this week by online news site Billy Penn. It has led to public outrage as controversy builds over American museums' display and study of human remains. Just last week, the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology pledged to repatriate another group of problematic human remains known as the Morton Collection.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said Thursday that he was "extremely disturbed" by the mishandling of the girls' remains and that the city is reviewing its internal records from the time of the bombing.

On Thursday, MOVE member Pam Africa told The RemiX Morning Showher organization had never been contacted about the remains.

"None of these monsters have called one MOVE person," Africa said. "Tree has a mother, Consuela Africa, who did 16 years in jail."

Where are the bones now? It's unclear.

In its latest statement, the University of Pennsylvania said the remains "were returned to the care and stewardship of Dr. Mann at Princeton University." Princeton then denied it had them, saying via spokesperson "no remains of the victims of the MOVE bombing" are on its premises. Mann, who is 81 and retired from Princeton, has not responded to calls about the situation.

Current members of MOVE are demanding that Tree's and Delisha's remains be returned to them. They want apologies from the universities and an investigation into how the girls' remains were handled.

Copyright 2021 WHYY

Maya Kassutto
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