Monday, June 03, 2013

Truth and the Law by Meldon D. Jenkins-Jones, RPL Law Librarian

Here at the Richmond Public Library on East Franklin Street, I recently watched Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies, a documentary produced and directed by Shawn O. Utsey, of the African American Studies Department of Virginia Commonwealth University. The narration was written by Ana Edwards.  The film is about the apparently widespread practice of grave robbing and use of African American cadavers by medical schools—African American employees and white medical students--in the 19th and 20th centuries. The film includes interviews of older Richmond residents who still remember staying inside at night as children, to avoid being snatched away by the grave robbers. Shocking!
Man’s inhumanity always amazes me. The prevalence of these illegal practices, along with the Tuskegee Experiment—see Medicalapartheid : the dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans fromcolonial times to the present by Harriet A. Washington  —and practices chronicled by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, explains why many African Americans are still afraid of doctors and hospitals.  Unbelievable? You can see these resources for yourself at the Richmond Public Library.
 Until the Well Runs Dry showed photographs of some of the grave robbers, who were known as “Resurrectionists”. One famous Resurrectionist here in the Richmond area was Chris Baker, an African American man who was employed by the local Virginia medical school. He could attend funerals to scope out the location of his next victim without being immediately detected.
What part, if any, did the law play in these nefarious activities? Since this was a widespread practice in several medical schools—not just in Virginia—it is apparent that “the Law” looked the other way.  The legal establishment—police and judges—largely ignored this unconstitutional and unconscionable practice.  On the one, documented occasion when the grave robber—in that case Chris Baker –was caught, the Governor pardoned him only 6 days later, thus encouraging the illegal activity to continue.

Reports of such objectionable and illegal practices raise several questions. Ethically, did the ends justify the means? Could this type of activity happen today? Indeed, is it happening now? Let’s hope not. However, there are, across the country, a lot of missing children . . . . (Are they all victims of the modern slave trade?)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Library.


Mary Reeves said...

Thank you for bringing this shocking and thought-provoking film to our attention. Surely medical science as well as attitudes towards African Americans have progressed in modern times. Or have they? Mary

Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea about this history. I do have the 'Henrietta Lacks' book, but have not heard of the others. They look like interesting reads, and I would be curious to know about whether the 'grave-robbing' practices still occur in the US.