A trail of white petals lined East Marshall Street on Monday as drums and bells welcomed home the remains of 53 people, mainly of African descent, whose first resting place had been a 19th-century well on what is now the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The remains arrived in Richmond from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where they had rested since the well was discovered in 1994 during construction of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building on VCU’s medical campus.
The return of the remains was a solemn occasion that traced the racism present in the lives and deaths of those memorialized Monday.
The deceased, 44 adults and 9 children, are thought to have been victims of “postmortem racism” in antebellum Richmond — their bodies likely stolen from fresh graves or taken from hospital deathbeds to be used for the training of medical students.
“We honor those who in death were sold again in the cadaver trade … who completed their life cycle in a dry well, who were not free even in death,” said Janine Bell, president of the Elegba Folklore Society, which led an African libation ceremony near the site of the well to lend “cultural context and spiritual grounding” to Monday’s event. As part of the traditional African libation ceremony, Bell poured water into a bowl while paying homage to the African ancestors of the deceased.
The return of the remains to Richmond is part of a research and memorialization process that VCU President Michael Rao kicked off in 2013 — nearly two decades after the remains were found. Recommendations from a committee released in the fall called for the remains to return to Richmond.
They also called for further research into the remains to understand their ancestry and their health before death; burial in the Richmond area that honors West African traditions; and physical memorials to mark the experiences of the people whose remains were disposed of in the well.
The remains were transported Monday night to the Department of Historic Resources, where they’ll remain for now.
“We’ve recommended that they be buried in the [Richmond African Burial Ground], but it’ll be several years before they are buried,” said Joseph Jones, who chairs the Family Representative Council for the East Marshall Street Well Project. The council is made up of “surrogate descendants” of the deceased — local experts and community members tasked with representing them.
During Monday’s ceremony, several speakers spoke of the pain of slavery in Richmond and the inequitable treatment and burial of those whose remains were found in the well.
“They were discarded without respect and without dignity,” said Mayor Levar Stoney. “Today they get respect and dignity.” Stoney said that through public policies, society must “provide the justice our ancestors didn’t have but rightfully deserved.”
Gov. Ralph Northam said: “They were not shown respect in life or in death,” adding that those who benefited from their bodies opted toward “tossing them away instead of giving them the dignity of a burial.”
Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who has worked on the well project for years, said that while the identities and exact manner of death of those buried are unknown, “we know the human condition of pain and suffering.”
Jones reminded those gathered Monday that the excavation of the well stopped 10 feet short of the well’s bottom.
“There almost certainly are remains underneath this building,” Jones said. “This is sacred ground.”