In the early evening of May 13, 1985, the police flew a helicopter over a crowded West Philadelphia neighborhood and dropped a bomb on the rowhouse where members of the communal, anti-government group MOVE lived.
The bomb started a fire, and the police ordered firefighters to let it burn. Eleven people, including five children, were killed, and more than 60 nearby homes were destroyed.
The pain of that day never left for many Philadelphians, a scarring memory of how the police caused a middle-class, mostly Black neighborhood to burn.
This week, the anguish came surging back when officials at two Ivy League universities acknowledged that anthropologists had been passing the bones of a young bombing victim between them for the last 36 years. The bones were also featured in a video for an online course, “Real Bones: Adventures in Forensic Anthropology,” taught by a University of Pennsylvania professor and offered by Princeton.
“I was sickened and almost in shock,” said Jamie Gauthier, a member of the Philadelphia City Council, which apologized for the bombing last year. “It’s just an unbelievable amount of disrespect for Black life and an unbelievable amount of disrespect for a child who suffered trauma, a child who was killed by her own government.”
Mike Africa Jr., an activist, writer and member of MOVE who was 6 when the bomb was dropped, said he and others in the group did not know the bones — parts of a burned femur and a pelvis — had been used in the video and kept for decades by anthropologists.
He said he learned about the bones only days ago from an activist, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, who wrote an opinion piece published on Wednesday by The Philadelphia Inquirer calling for the bones to be returned to MOVE. The same day, the news site Billy Penn reported that the remains had been kept in a cardboard box on a shelf.