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Community Makes Progress on East Marshall Street Well Project

Kevin Allison, senior assistant to the president at Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks during the East Marshall Street Well Project community meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.
Kevin Allison, senior assistant to the president at Virginia Commonwealth University, speaks during the East Marshall Street Well Project community meeting at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond. At left are leaders from the Family Representative Council committees. VCU University Public Affairs

The “East Marshall Street Well Project” continues making progress on how to honor human remains found more than 20 years ago on VCU’s medical campus. After gathering community input last Spring, a group standing in for relatives of the deceased has shared their recommendations. Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Listen to WCVE's coverage of the 2015 Community Consultations, find out more at VCU's site gathering background, videos and updates on future meetings and follow the project on social media using #VCUWellProject. 


The remains found in the partial excavation of the well belonged to at least 44 people over the age of 14. Nine more were identified as younger than 14. Most were of African descent. The bodies were likely stolen from graves and used in medical research. After the 1994 discovery, the remains were stored away, forgotten about. But a 2011 documentary “Until the Well Runs Dry” by VCU Professor Shawn Utsey’ brought renewed attention to this issue. And several years ago, a process began to finally address this history.

Stacy L Burrs: It’s been a remarkable journey, it’s something I have a passion for.

Stacy L Burrs is deputy director of Venture Richmond and the former president of the Black History Museum.

Burrs: It’s been both encouraging and disappointing at the same time, having a sense of what people can do to their fellow people.

But, says Burrs, this is an opportunity to correct those wrongs and bring some healing. Burrs is part of the “Family Representative Council” which formed after a series of intensive community meeting in Spring 2015. Facilitated by the DC-based Justice and Sustainability Associates, the public was invited to share their ideas on how to move forward. Participants said a memorial should be educational. They called for a mourning period and healing. They requested further scientific study. They asked if VCU medical students are aware of this history. And they developed criteria for selecting representatives who would stand in for the unknown families.

Joseph Jones: My name is Joseph Jones, I’m assistant professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and I served as chair of the Family Representative Council.

Jones worked on New York’s African Burial Ground, which also used community-engaged research.

Jones: We saw this is an opportunity, one chance, one shot, to make sure these people were respected for-- we've been using the term contributions but I think sacrifices is the term that is more recently used, because there's a great likelihood that many of their use for medical training was involuntary. So we really thought that this was a chance for us to get it right, to make sure that these people respected, belatedly but importantly, finally and in such a way that so many of our ancestors have not been, have not had the opportunity to be. So we’ll never know their names, but that makes them no less important.

At the latest public consultation, the Family Representative Council shared their preliminary recommendations, many incorporating the community’s input. Stephanie Smith was involved with the “memorialization” working group.

Stephanie Smith: Our first recommendation is that we memorialize the experiences of the ancestors within the Kontos building and near the Kontos building. Secondly we recommend building a significantly appropriate memorial and Interactive learning center at the site of the interment. Third, we recommend establishing an annual memorialization practice for VCU medical students prior to their anatomy class to pay respect to those who are contributing and have contributed their remains for the benefit of their scientific learning.

For reburying with dignity, the Council recommended commissioning coffin boxes crafted in West Africa and internment at the nearby African Burial Ground. Recommendations on further research includes using the well site’s history to find out more about the experiences of 18th and 19th Century African Americans in Richmond. The Council endorsed more scientific research, like DNA or microbial analysis of the remains, something many community members said they wanted. And they called for an examination of the long-term implications of this history - how does this legacy connect to today’s medical practices and the Black community.

After the recommendations were shared at the June “community consultation,” facilitators led a discussion with each table to get more public input.

Rhonda Keyes Pleasants: I hope that today will be a springboard for what is yet to come.

Rhonda Keyes Pleasants is a funeral director and embalmer, and a member of the Family Representative Council.

Pleasants: We're not finished yet. This is still a very active process and so it's important that the momentum and the energy continue to exist because we're not done and I'd hate to see the ball dropped.

Participants will continue work finalizing the recommendations, which will then be presented to university leaders. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News

All photos courtesy of VCU University Public Affairs.