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This extensive research report from independent scholar and McNeil Center for Early American Studies affiliated researcher John S. Michael concerns the Vedado Burial Grounds outside of Havana, Cuba, and the remains of 55 enslaved people born in Africa who were interred there and whose remains were sent to Samuel George Morton in 1840 by Cuban physician José Rodríguez y Cisneros. Using maps, correspondence, and published literature in English and Spanish, from the 19th-21st centuries, Michael evaluates how the remains of 55 enslaved people born in Africa were interred, disinterred, and shipped to Philadelphia from Cuba in 1840. Michael documents the location of the Vedado Burial Grounds along the coastline west of Havana and presents evidence that the Vedado Burial Grounds likely originated as a sink hole that came to be utilized as both a mass grave and refuse pit. In addition to sketching the network of Cuban naturalist-physicians who arranged to send Morton the skulls of enslaved people from Cuba between 1835-1840, Michael also argues that the remains sent to Morton in 1840 likely consisted mostly of enslaved people who were born in Africa and died soon after arriving in Cuba, but that some among them may have had other origins.
Paul Wolff Mitchell, 2018, PLoS Biology
From the article’s abstract: “The discovery of nearly 180-year-old cranial measurements in the archives of 19th century American physician and naturalist Samuel George Morton can address a lingering debate, begun in the late 20th century by paleontologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould, about the unconscious bias alleged in Morton’s comparative data of brain size in human racial groups. Analysis of Morton’s lost data and the records of his studies does not support Gould’s arguments about Morton’s biased data collection. However, historical contextualization of Morton with his scientific peers, especially German anatomist Friedrich Tiedemann, suggests that, while Morton’s data may have been unbiased, his cranial race science was not. Tiedemann and Morton independently produced similar data about human brain size in different racial groups but analyzed and interpreted their nearly equivalent results in dramatically different ways: Tiedemann using them to argue for equality and the abolition of slavery, and Morton using them to entrench racial divisions and hierarchy. These differences draw attention to the epistemic limitations of data and the pervasive role of bias within the broader historical, social, and cultural context of science.”
For more information on this article, please see:
***Black Philadelphians in the Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection
Paul Wolff Mitchell, 2021, a public report for the Penn Medicine and the Afterlives of Slavery Project, Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society
From the report’s abstract: “From the 1760s until the 1880s, bodies of Black Philadelphians were often graverobbed for dissection and anatomical study in medical schools and private collections. Many of these remains came from the potter’s field, or unmarked communal burial ground, of the Philadelphia almshouse, a free public hospital at which many Penn Medicine faculty worked and trained medical students. Among the few surviving nineteenth-century anatomical collections with documented remains from the Philadelphia almshouse is the Samuel George Morton cranial collection, now at the Penn Museum. The Penn Museum is built on the former grounds of the Philadelphia almshouse, facing and adjacent to the potter’s field, now under Penn’s Franklin Field and surrounding streets, where bodies of some of those Philadelphians whose skulls are now in the Penn Museum were interred. Records of the Black community in Philadelphia in this period suggest that some of the estimated fourteen Black Philadelphians whose skulls are now at the Penn Museum were individuals who were born enslaved. All of the more than thirty white and Black Philadelphians whose skulls were acquired by Morton demonstrate the racially and socioeconomically discriminatory aspects of anatomical collection in the nineteenth century, as well as Penn’s role in the long and intertwined afterlives of slavery, medical racism, and racial science.”
For more information on this report, please see:
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Paul Wolff Mitchell, 2021, History of Anthropology Review
This text prefaces a series of over one dozen invited essays, including from the Penn & Slavery Project’s VanJessica Gladney, on the legacies of scientific racism in museums, for the History of Anthropology Review.