A group that set out to chart a course for the remains of more than 50 people found inside a 19th-century well on what is now the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University is proposing genetic testing, further research into the well and physical memorials to mark the lives of the deceased.
The bodies — 44 people 14 or older and 9 children younger than 14 — were uncovered in 1994 during construction of the Kontos Building on East Marshall Street, on the university’s medical center campus.
Mainly of African descent, the deceased 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.
The recommendations were drafted by the “surrogate descendants” of the deceased — local experts and community members tasked with representing them.
The group gave its recommendations to VCU President Michael Rao on Monday, the university said in a news release Tuesday.
Among them: 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.
“I felt as though we had a lot of guidance from the community. Our test became to hone that,” said Joseph Jones, chairman of the Family Representative Council for the East Marshall Street Well Project. “I don’t feel that we were grasping at straws.”
In an interview, Jones said one of the most debated recommendations dealt with scientific testing of the remains. Citing concerns over the privacy of descendants and potential misuse of genetic information, Jones said that he was initially hesitant.
“In looking at all the community feedback, it came through quickly that people want to use science to find out as much as we can about the remains,” Jones said.
As such, the council is recommending limited study of the cadavers, along with a broader look at archival information and oral history related to the well.
They’re also calling for a study on the long-term relevance of the well on the modern experiences of African-Americans with the health system.
“How are people’s experiences with the health care system contextualized in light of this discovery? … There tends to be a lot of distrust among African-Americans and other communities, in part because of this history,” Jones said, adding that delving into the issue can allow the area to forge a reconciliatory path forward.
In the same vein, the council also is urging VCU to launch a “systematic investigation of its historic relationship to slavery,” and potential mechanisms for redressing that legacy. Such efforts, the group says, would go toward memorializing the lives of those found in the well.
As for physical memorials, the group is proposing four markers near or within the Kontos Building: an outdoor memorial, artwork near the entrance of the building’s main auditorium, facial reconstructions of the deceased on the first floor of the building, and a physical marker near the location of the well.
The group also is calling for a memorial and interactive learning center wherever the remains are ultimately buried. Among the locations long proposed by the group are the African Burial Ground site near Interstate 95 or Evergreen Cemetery, where distinguished African-Americans such as Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr. and A.D. Price are buried.
The remains are being held at the Smithsonian Institution.
The group is calling for the bodies to be placed in coffins designed and crafted by West African artisans.
Rhonda Keyes Pleasants, a member of the council, and a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of Virginia, said the practice of hand-crafting coffins specially for the deceased continues in West Africa.
The coffins, she said, pay “homage to the lineage of the decedents.”
The authors will present their recommendations at a public forum at 6 p.m. Dec. 13 in the auditorium of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, 1217 E. Marshall St.
The report doesn’t offer estimates on the cost of recommendations, but asks that VCU publish requests for proposals for many of the projects. The university has already begun to accept applications from the public to fill its implementation steering committees.
“We are grateful for the insight and guidance of East Marshall Street Well Project members and Family Representative Council members,” Rao said in a statement. “We thank the members for giving a voice to human beings who did not receive respect during their lifetime and after their passing.”