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In 1990 the US Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and tribes. Cultural items include human remains.

An article published this week in Nature has called for a similar law to honour the remains of African-Americans who were enslaved or who were victims of segregation or racial violence.

Pressure for this has been mounting in recent years. Last year an anthropology museum at the University of Pennsylvania removed dozens of skulls of enslaved Cubans and of black residents of Philadelphia who had been buried in paupers’ graves. Harvard University has discovered that its museums hold the remains of at least 15 slaves. It has been estimated that the Smithsonian Institution, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Howard University still have the remains of some 2,000 African Americans. There are probably many others.

These figures do not include thousands of people buried in unmarked graves or unofficial cemeteries – some of which have been bulldozed for development. These include, for instance, 13 victims of race riots in Chicago in 1919. “There are thousands of remains in unmarked burial grounds and institutional collections around the country, which are at risk of loss, negligence and destruction,” write the authors of the Nature article.

For example, the body of Nat Turner — the freedom fighter who was hanged and skinned in 1831 for leading a rebellion — is thought to have entered the ‘cadaver trade’, which supplied US anatomy classrooms8

“This is a civil- and human-rights issue,” the authors claim. “The remains of African American people, as with those of Native Americans, have not received the same protections as the bodies of white citizens.” They have four recommendations: pass an African American Burial Grounds Network Act, catalogue existing bone collections, pause the study and use of Black remains in existing collections, and amend other federal legislation.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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