The East Marshall Street Well Planning Committee implemented a community process that encouraged learning about the human remains discovered near East Marshall Street and sought community input in the formation of the Family Representative Council. The Family Representative Council will serve to represent the “descendant community” that will make recommendations on behalf of those individuals whose remains were discovered to support appropriate study, memorialization and reburial with dignity.
In 1994 during the construction of the Kontos building on East Marshall Street in Richmond, Virginia, a well was discovered during excavation at the northeast corner of what had been historically known as Academy Square. Human remains and artifacts were removed from the well. Although covered by the media in 1994, the discovery remained largely unaddressed until awareness of the well’s history was included in Dr. Shawn Utsey’s documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry,” which examined the issue of grave robbing and use of black cadavers in medical education during the 19th century.
Building on guidance from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and Dr. Michael Blakey, the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Anthropology at William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University has begun the implementation of a process to address critical issues and concerns, emphasizing the dignity and respect that should be accorded to these human remains. At the invitation of VCU President Michael Rao, a planning committee, comprised of community and university representatives, was established in September 2013 to support and guide this effort.
To assist in our understanding of the well’s history, a series of analyses of the well contents and the relevant historical period were undertaken. An examination of the bones was led by Dr. Douglas Owlsey, division head, Division of Physical Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Based on these analyses, the remains represent minimally 44 individuals of age 14 or older, and nine children under age 14. Analyses further suggest that the individuals were primarily African or of African descent.
In addition to the examination of the human remains, Merry A. Outlaw, assistant curator, Historic Jamestowne Rediscovery, completed an evaluation of the artifacts found in the well. The well contained 423 artifacts and animal remains. The earliest datable objects were from the period 1790-1810 and the most recent were from the period 1840-1850, suggesting that the well was from the pre-Civil War period.
Jodi Koste, archivist and head, VCU Tompkins MacCaw Library Special Collections and Archives, conducted a historical examination of medical education in Richmond to provide further context for understanding the well and its contents. Nineteenth-century medical educators at what would later become the Medical College of Virginia and the Health Sciences Division of VCU worked to provide instruction in anatomy and surgery. This required the utilization of cadavers, however medical institutions had no legal method at that time for obtaining cadavers. Illicit grave robbing addressed this challenge and a “sink,” well or “limb pit” was used for the disposal of these remains.
Unlike the discovery of individuals buried in a marked cemetery, the nature of the discovery of these human remains does not provide a clear group of descendants to speak on their behalf. In this instance, a community process was established to identify individuals who would serve on the Family Representative Council. In this role, individuals would represent the “descendant community” to make recommendations around memorialization, reburial of the human remains and the need for additional examination of the remains.
The East Marshall Street Well Planning Committee identified Justice and Sustainability Associates to provide support for a series of discussions that afforded opportunities for community input and recommendations in the selection of individuals who will serve as representatives on the Family Representative Council. These discussions took place in April and May of 2015 and can be viewed here.
The Family Representative Council was convened in August of 2015 and has been working diligently to make recommendations on behalf of the descendant community related to appropriate study, memorialization and reburial with dignity for the human remains and associated artifacts that were discovered. The council has been divided into three working groups to prepare recommendations to the Planning Committee in early 2016.
Family Representative Council
Lillie A. Estes
Rhonda Keyes Pleasants
Janet “Queen Nzinga” Taylor
Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, committee chair, vice president, Richmond City Council
Delegate Delores McQuinn, Slave Trail Commission
Rev. Dr. J. Elisha Burke, committee vice-chair, director of health ministry, Baptist General Convention of Virginia
Ana Edwards, chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality
Joanna Wilson Green, archaeologist, Virginia Department of Historic Resources
John Kneebone, associate professor and chair, Department of History, VCU
Monika Markowitz, director of research integrity and ethics, Office of Research, VCU
Larry Miller, former deputy director, Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, City of Richmond
Wanda Mitchell, vice president for inclusive excellence, VCU
Mark Olinger, director of planning and development review, City of Richmond
Karen Rader, associate professor, Department of History, VCU
John Ulmschneider, university librarian, VCU
Shawn Utsey, professor, Department of Psychology, VCU
Russ Uzzle, former university planner, Planning and Design, VCU
Cricket White, Hope in the Cities
Planning committee staff
Kevin Allison, senior assistant to the president, VCU
Kevin Harris, interim associate vice president for health sciences, VCU
Stephen Davenport, project administrator, Office of the President, VCU
Mike Porter, interim director, Public Affairs, VCU
Planning committee consultants
Michael Blakey, consultant, The College of William and Mary
Don Edwards, CEO, senior facilitator, Justice & Sustainability Associates
Gwen Whiting, senior associate, Justice & Sustainability Associates
Brandon Mayo, project coordinator, Justice & Sustainability Associates