A week after news broke that the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University held, studied, boxed and shelved human remains identified as children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing, UPenn has launched an internal investigation led by Black-owned Tucker Law Group.
Along with firm founder and CEO Joe Tucker, the attorney named to lead the project is Carl E. Singley, who is uniquely connected to the case: he served as counsel for the special commission formed by the city to investigate the bombing back in the ‘80s.
The current inquiry will look into how Penn Museum acquired the remains, why they were kept for more than 35 years, and how to avoid a similar action, according to a memo circulated to “the Penn community.”
At Penn’s request, a funeral home was expected to pick up the remains from retired professor Alan Mann’s home.
Protestors rallied at the museum last week, outlining their anger and disappointment and calling for the university to return the remains, among other demands. “Someone who died in 1985 whose mother is still alive … should not be part of a collection,” protester and Penn graduate Zoe Sturges told WHYY News. “That’s not history.”
In its memo to the school community last week, Penn pledged to return the remains to the MOVE family, despite saying their identity is still uncertain. The university earlier in the week issued a public apology for its role.
Princeton separately apologized publicly last week, and university President Christopher L. Eisgruber penned an apology published last Wednesday. It also cancelled the online Coursera class that used the remains for an “Adventures in Anthropology” lesson “out of respect for the victims of the bombing and their families,” a spokesperson said.
This is just some of the fallout from the reporting and opinion piece that outlined how Mann, then a forensic anthropology professor, came to possess and study the human bones, and took them with him when he transferred between the Ivy League institutions.
Mann received the remains from the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office after the 1985 bombing as part of the MOVE Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, created by the city to investigate what happened. In that investigation, a researcher hired by the commission identified the remains in question as belonging to 15-year-old Katricia “Tree” Africa and 12-year-old Delisha Africa. Some questioned the finding, and that’s when Mann was brought in.
In the 3½ decades that followed, Mann and his then-assistant, now Penn Museum curator Janet Monge, say they were never able to come to a conclusion about the remains’ definitive identity.
Attorney Tucker declined to comment on the investigation via email, citing the nascent nature of the inquiry.
Here’s what else we know.
Singley led 1985 commission ‘born of public shock’
Singley was dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law when he was tapped to head the city’s special investigation.
In his own words at the time, he defined the investigation as “born of the public’s shock, confusion and incredulity that the government had malfunctioned with such devastating consequences.”
Singley led the commission, which comprised a dozen private citizens convened less than 10 days after the bombing. “The citizens wanted to know what happened, how it happened, who was responsible and how such events could be prevented in the future,” Singley said.
He summed up those sentiments in a 2005 article for Religion News Blog: “What so shocked and appalled us at the time was how government got it so wrong, the ineptitude, the miscalculation, the miscommunication.”
Revisiting the crisis and his role in it for a 2010 Inquirer profile, Singley tapped a Machiavellian theory to help explain how Philadelphia officials could have acted so wrongly. “Catastrophic consequences often come from a series of poor decisions that seem to make sense at the time,” he said. “Hindsight adds brilliant clarity.”
Now in his 70s, Singley had retired, but reemerged a few years ago to serve as counsel at Tucker Law Group, owned by his protege Joe Tucker.
Largest regional Black-owned firm
The Tucker Law Group has been called the largest Black-owned law firm on the East Coast.
Attorneys there specialize in areas that include complex civil litigation, civil rights law, and higher education law, according to the firm website. Tucker’s own bio describes his success in representing major colleges and universities, along with Fortune 100 companies and individual litigants.
The firm’s website underscores its “breadth of experience counseling and advising post-secondary institutions,” and further highlights education litigation in areas including sexual and student misconduct, constitutional claims and breach of contract.
Tucker Law Group also describes itself as positioned to handle multi-plaintiff or multi-defendant suits involving governmental bodies and nonprofits.
The firm also specializes in civil rights litigation, including Section 1983 actions, which allow parties to sue governments and people acting under the cover of law for civil rights and due process violations — a statute that could prove relevant in this case.
Where are the remains? Suddenly, Mann knows
For more than a week, no one seemed to know where the remains once identified as Tree and Delisha Africa are.
But in a Philadelphia Tribune story published Thursday night, West Philadelphia’s Terry Funeral Home confirmed it would pick up the remains from retired professor Mann’s house on Friday morning. Terry Funeral Home CEO George Burrell told the Tribune he spoke to Penn Museum director Chris Woods and began the process of transferring the bones earlier last week.
The human remains were shelved in Penn Museum for the last five years, where Monge was reportedly using new tools to analyze them. The university told The Inquirer it shipped the bones back to Mann as recently as last Saturday. Mann, however, subsequently told the paper he doesn’t have the bones — and claimed he hadn’t seen them in more than 10 years.
Mann had different words for Inside Higher Ed. An April 23 article included quotes from Mann and described him as having plans to take the bones “to the Philadelphia medical examiner within the next few days.”
Neither Penn nor Princeton ever claimed to know where they were, spokespeople for both institutions had said.
Museum leadership in the dark
According to the memo circulated to Penn faculty, staff and students, Penn Museum Director Chris Woods — the first Black person to lead the institution — only learned the museum had the remains on April 16, two weeks after he started in the position.
In its memo, which was later posted online, Penn doubled down on its plan for the remains, stating, “these remains should be returned to the Africa family as soon as possible.”
Members of the MOVE family and organization, including Tree Africa’s mother Consuela Africa, said they did not trust Penn, Princeton or the city to return the remains in an honest fashion. MOVE members said they weren’t looking for a return of their loved ones who were killed, and whose remains they said had now been “desecrated.”
They also aren’t asking for an investigation.
“You investigated the 1985 bombing of our family,” Janine Africa said Monday. “They had a commission on it. And what was the result of that? Nothing.”
Instead, the family advocated for the release of a living loved one, Mumia Abu-Jamal, from prison. Abu-Jamal is in prison for the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal has maintained his innocence, and MOVE members and others point to years of evidence that prove it.
Recently, Abu-Jamal’s health has gradually failed in prison. He’s been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, liver cirrhosis and COVID-19, and recently diagnosed with several blocked coronary arteries for which he’ll require surgery.
“If they want to do anything, anything to show people that they are sincere about resolving this situation with MOVE and the city, let Mumia out,” Africa said. “He’s still alive.”
MOVE members said Monday none of them knew their family’s remains were at the Ivy League.
Tree’s mother Consuela Africa was one of the MOVE Nine, and in prison for the 1978 shooting death of a police officer at the MOVE compound when the city bombed her children. Her daughter Zanetta Africa, 13, was also killed. Consuela was released after serving 16 years.
Delisha’s father, Delbert Africa, and mother, Janet Africa, were also imprisoned in 1985. They’ve both since been released. Delbert Africa died last June, months after he was paroled.