Every aspect of US history is irrevocably tied to slavery. The repercussions of the trade in human chattel can be seen in the modern descendants of enslaved peoples, but also within the societal frameworks that make up modern America. There has been a lot of discussion recently about the role that slavery played in the advancement of science in the 19th century, and its ongoing legacy within Ivy League institutions. The relationship that these universities have with the oppression of the descendents of enslaved people is difficult to grasp if you’ve never set foot on one of these campuses. Allow me, a Philadelphian expat, to explain.
This image from the British Online Archives illustrates the treatment of enslaved people in America.
Philadelphia abolished slavery in 1780, but that does not mean that it is a city free from racism. In fact, one of the more famous works regarding racial science in the 19th century was published by Philadelphia physician and naturalist, Samuel George Morton. Modern racism can be seen from fear of the MOVE Organization, a largely Black group centered in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s, to the need for the BLM movement today. Philadelphia and MOVE recently made the news when the whereabouts of remains from the bombing of MOVE headquarters by police in the 1980s, was revealed to be not buried in the ground, as their families believed, but in university collections. These are not the only controversial remains in the area.
The University of Pennsylvania holds some world renowned collections of archaeological artefacts. The skeletal collections that reside within its museum’s walls were where I first learned to view the person beyond the dry bones, and I am forever thankful for that. However, one of the collections whose members I worked with, has an insidious past. The Samuel Morton Cranial Collection is composed of hundreds of people who were used to uphold incredibly racist ideas about the intellectual abilities of different “races”.1 Morton believed that by measuring the internal capacity of a cranium using different media, he could assess the intelligence of the owner. That is a gross oversimplification, but it is important to know that his conclusion “presented a quantitative argument not only for racial hierarchies of intelligence, but also for the separate origins of the races, elevating racial differences among humans to differences among species”.2 Morton truly looked at crania from people around the world, and claimed that white Europeans were the creme de la creme, and that people of African ancestry were no better than apes, all based on how many mustard seeds he could fit in their cranial cavities.
The provenance of these crania have recently come under scrutiny. Morton’s “opportunistic” collecting methods meant that many of the crania within his collection have dodgy chains of custody, and belong to people who were formerly enslaved.3,4 There has been a push to repatriate these crania to their descendants, because no matter how interesting they are to study and learn from, the disrespect with which they were collected cannot be ignored. The Penn Museum has pledged to return these people to their descendant communities wherever possible. The crania have all been 3D scanned, so there is no loss to the scientific community, as we can simply print out copies of them and observe the same people that Morton did, though we will no doubt come to different conclusions.
Many of Morton’s observations are explained by the trauma suffered by those whose crania reside in his collection. Our bodies hold our trauma. They store it for us, a physical manifestation of the hardships we’ve faced. Though this is true for all of humanity, it disproportionately affects those whose families and ancestors have suffered from systematic oppression for generations.
This bust is the type that was used as a map for a phrenologist. Each section represents a different aspect of a person's character, allowing a phrenologist to 'read' the shape of a person's head. Source: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/jzrps723
The people who were originally transported against their will from West Africa to the Americas already carried the result of generational trauma in their blood. Due to the endemic nature of diseases like malaria and yellow fever in their homeland, genetic mutations afforded them a modicum of immunity from them. Falciparum Malaria is one of the most deadly types of malaria, and around half of the people imported as chattel had variations of sickle cell and other blood enzyme deficiencies, which prevented the high (and fatal) level of parasitisation that is a hallmark of P. falciparum.5 P. falciparum wasn’t the only type of malaria that affected West Africans to a lesser degree. Vivax malaria is stymied by red blood cells that are ‘Duffy group negative’. This condition is extremely rare in populations without Black admixture, but its frequency reaches 100% in some African peoples.6 Even yellow fever, which ravaged white Europeans, was not as fatal to African Americans. In 1878, an epidemic that wiped out 70% of infected whites, and 9% of infected Blacks.7 The genetic mutations that saved many people of African ancestry were born from generations of traumatic losses due to disease. These adaptations were the remains of traumas long gone.
These inherited immunities offered supporters of the slave trade a scientific justification for the continued enslavement of Black people. You couldn’t enslave white Europeans when they died at three times the rate of imported African peoples. This view, that Black Africans were more suited to the environments needed to grow cash crops, pervaded the pro-slavery literature up until around the 1840s.8 With the rise of pseudosciences like phrenology, wherein people thought that the lumps and bumps on a cranium indicated a person’s character traits, a new slew of racially biased biological treatises marked Black people as “lesser”.9 This preoccupation with the cranial shape and capacity of different peoples, coupled with other statements about Black people needing to be watched over, as they were “deviant” and more prone to “baser” forms of existence, pervaded pro-slavery and anti-Black works through to the 20th century.10
Though white people often chose to view Black people as lesser stock, that did not stop them from utilising them for the purposes of furthering science. In fact, in order to ensure that smallpox vaccination material was free from any other maladies, doctors began to infect enslaved Black children to generate the scabs and lymph needed to create the vaccine.11 This piecemeal approach has always characterised racist thoughts. Black people were a different species, until their bodies became useful to white people.
There can be positive mutations due to trauma such as those previously mentioned, but other physical manifestations are not so favourable. The treatment that enslaved Blacks underwent was nothing short of torture. Both abolitionist circulars and scientific studies confirm that enslaved peoples’ diet consisted mostly of corn.12,13 While corn can provide the necessary calories that a grown person requires to continue living, it cannot provide all of the nutrients that the surviving person needs in order to be healthy. Pellagra, or vitamin B3 deficiency, became endemic among enslaved and formerly enslaved Black people. It’s a pretty wretched condition, characterised by “ four "Ds" of pellagra; diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death-... along with a myriad of other symptoms”.14 This is due, in part, to yet another physical adaptation. In this case, a lactose intolerance. An amino acid called tryptophan can help stave off pellagra, but the diet that enslaved people were allowed did not produce enough of it. Milk would have been the ideal answer, as it is a good source of tryptophan, but due to low milk usage in Central and West Africa, those populations never developed lactase persistence, meaning that the majority could not digest milk or dairy.15
The diet of enslaved people was not varied, as you can see from this excerpt from an Abolitionist Periodical in the British Online Archive.
Black Africans have a greater amount of melanin in their skin than white Europeans, and as such, have a more difficult time producing vitamin D from the photo-conversion of 7-dehydrocholesterol in skin.16 There are very few foods that provide people with vitamin D, and those that do, like oily fish, were not a part of the rations afforded to enslaved people.
One of the main side effects of a vitamin D deficiency is rickets, or in adults, osteomalacia.17 This condition causes the bones to lose some of their structural integrity and bend. This is commonly observed in the legs of an individual, causing them to become “bow legged” or “knock kneed”. However, it can also often be seen in the deformation of the pelvis, creating a more narrow passage through which to birth a child. This can cause a whole litany of issues, one of which I discussed in my last post, a vesicovaginal fistula. This condition is a tear between the tissues of the bladder and the vagina, and is incredibly painful. The system of slavery increased the frequency of Black women getting vesicovaginal fistulae, which in turn, placed several into the ‘care’ of James Marion Sims, who experimented on them in order to find a way to repair these tears. The enslavers, albeit unknowingly, directly caused the affliction that led to the medical experimentation of Sims.
This Image shows the deformation of a skeleton due to rickets/ osteomalacia. Bowed legs are visible, as is a pelvis with a very narrow inlet. This narrow inlet would make the birth of a child far more traumatic. Source: Wellcome Collection: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/sxn6hrtm
All of these factors help to contextualise the trauma that enslaved people faced in the Americas, but their impact also reaches into the present day. The structures whose foundations were laid in the subjugation of a group of people based upon their skin tone have not truly left. Doctors still assume that Black people feel less pain than their white counterparts. Lack of acceptable levels of medical care are common in large swaths of the United States, and Black people are more likely to lose a limb due to diabetes than white folks. Our biases have been handed down for generations thanks to people like Samuel Morton.
In more recent history, America remained segregated until 1964, when the American Civil Rights Act stated that
“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defied in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin”.18
My mother was seven years old when this act was passed. I'm sure many of your parents were alive as well.
The City of Philadelphia recently erected a plaque at the site of the bombing, as a memorial. Image Source: https://www.readtheplaque.com/plaque/the-move-bombing
Keeping all of this in mind, when the news recently broke about the use of the remains of two people killed in the MOVE bombings in Philadelphia, you can see why people were upset. The MOVE Organization is,
“A controversial Philadelphia-based organization often associated with the Black Power movement, combined philosophies of Black nationalism and anarcho-primitivism to advocate a return to a hunter-gatherer society and avoidance of modern medicine and technology”.19
Nineteen years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, On May 13th 1985, the Philadelphia Police dropped military grade explosives on the headquarters of MOVE in West Philadelphia. Eleven people were killed, including five children.20
The remains of the eleven deceased MOVE members were recovered from the wreckage of the house, and seemingly identified and buried. However, it recently came to light that one set of these remains had been transferred by the Medical Examiner, into the custody of Dr. Alan Mann, a forensic anthropologist at The University of Pennsylvania, and his then graduate student, now Skeletal Curator, Dr. Janet Monge. These remains were kept in the UPenn Museum, ostensibly in an effort to confirm their identity, as there was some dispute as to whether they belonged to fourteen year old Tree Africa.21 When Dr. Mann transferred to Princeton, the skeletal remains went with him. However, the remains that Mann had in his possession were supposed to have been handed over to a special commission (which included Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, famous at the time for identifying the remains of Dr. Josef Mengele). Hameli’s findings disagreed with Mann’s regarding whether or not one set of remains belonged to an adult or an adolescent.22,23 In the meeting of a Grand Jury in 1985, eyewitness accounts were used to corroborate the scientific data, and it was agreed that one of the people present was Tree Africa.
In 1985, Tree’s remains were supposedly released to her family and buried. Her skeletal remains recently featured in a free online course through Princeton that was meant to assess personhood in forensic cases. The course has since been removed, but the trauma of watching the remains of a Black teenager, killed by police bombing, lingers.
The legacy of the violence perpetuated against Black Americans, especially with regard to scientific study could not be ignored. The history of oppression of Black Americans and the scientific community’s othering and racial categorisation culminated yet again in a non-consensual use of Black bodies. Yet again, Black people in the United States were treated as objects, even in death. We have a lot to reckon with.
1 Mitchell, Paul Wolff. “The Fault in His Seeds: Lost Notes to the Case of Bias in Samuel George Morton’s Cranial Race Science.” PLOS Biology, vol. 16, no. 10, Oct. 2018, p. e2007008. PLoS Journals, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2007008.
3 Salisbury, Stephan. “Penn Museum Apologizes for Its ‘Unethical’ Collection of Human Skulls and Says It Will Repatriate Remains of Black Philadelphians and Others.” Https://Www.Inquirer.Com, https://www.inquirer.com/arts/penn-museum-morton-colelction-skulls-repatriation-20210412.html.
4 The adjective ‘opportunistic’ taken from Redman, Samuel. “Human Remains and the Construction of Race and History, 1897-1945.” PhD Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.
5 Kiple, Kenneth, and Virginia Kiple. “The African Connection: Slavery, Disease and Racism.” Phylon (1960-) 41, no. 3 (33 1980): 211. https://doi.org/10.2307/274784.
8 The Southern Agriculturist and Register of Rural Affairs: Adapted to the Southern Section of the United States. 1839.
9 Mitchell, 2018
10 Allen, L. C. “The Negro Health Problem.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 5, no. 3, Mar. 1915, pp. 194–203. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2105/AJPH.5.3.194.
11 Hicks, Robert D., editor. “Scabrous Matters: Spurious Vaccinations in the Confederacy.” War Matters, University of North Carolina Press, 2018, pp. 123–50. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.5149/northcarolina/9781469643205.003.0007.
12 British Online Archive, Discourses on the evils of slavery in America & WI, 1833-1891. https://microform.digital/boa/documents/7165/discourses-on-the-evils-of-slavery-in-america-wi-1833-1891
13 F., Kenneth, and Virginia H. Kiple. “Black Tongue and Black Men: Pellagra and Slavery in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 43, no. 3, Aug. 1977, p. 411. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.2307/2207649.
16 Neer, Robert M. “The Evolutionary Significance of Vitamin D, Skin Pigment, and Ultraviolet Light.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 43, no. 3 (November 1975): 409–16. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.1330430322.
17 Ortner’s Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains Chapter 15. Elsevier, 2019. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1016/C2011-0-06880-1.
18 Civilrights.Org -- Research Center. 8 Aug. 2004, https://web.archive.org/web/20040808003903/http://www.civilrights.org/library/permanent_collection/resources/1964cra.html.
19 Slobuski, Teresa. Library Guides: Black Lives Matter: MOVE and the Bombing of Philadelphia. https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/c.php?g=1046409&p=7592859. Accessed 26 May 2021.
20 Thompson, Heather Ann. “Saying Her Name.” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/news/essay/saying-her-name. Accessed 26 May 2021.
21 Inquirer, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, For The. “Penn Museum Owes Reparations for Previously Holding Remains of a MOVE Bombing Victim | Opinion.” Https://Www.Inquirer.Com, https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/penn-museum-reparations-repatriation-move-bombing-20210421.html. Accessed 26 May 2021.
22 Thompson, 2021
23 Author’s note: Age estimation of skeletal remains is notoriously tricky. Though there are rough guidelines, every body is different, develops at slightly different rates, and there are always exceptions to every rule. Because of the fragmentary nature of bomb - and recovery - damaged remains, pinning down a clear age would be even more difficult. However, multiple scientists agreed on the identity of the remains. Everyone agreed, except for Mann.
24 Thompson, 2021