East Marshall Street Well Project

Update: Jan. 7, 2022

As 19th century ancestral remains arrive at VCU, researchers aim to learn more about who they were

"The 19th century human remains discovered in 1994 in an abandoned well on the MCV Campus were transferred Thursday from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to VCU's Department of Forensic Science. There, researchers will seek to understand more about who the people were and the cultural and historical context in which they lived.

....At VCU, researchers will work to answer questions developed by the Family Representative Council related to biochemical and DNA analysis of the remains.

'Specifically these recommendations were related to implementing analyses that allow us to understand the regional genetic ancestry of the individuals; to identify the sex of children and younger or prepubertal adolescents whose sex cannot be determined by physical examination of the bones, to understand the health environments of the individuals and to allow the possibility of identifying connections between individuals whose remains were discovered with potential living descendants,' said Kevin Allison, Ph.D., senior executive for special projects in the VCU Office of the President."

Read the full story at https://news.vcu.edu/article/2022/01/as-19th-century-remains-arrive-at-researchers-aim-to-learn-more-about-who-they-were

Visit emsw.vcu.edu to experience the background information, resources, and updates to this very compelling public history project.

View the trailer of the documentary that launched the project: Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies

The following are the closing paragraphs of a Richmond Magazine story summarizing the EMSW project as of April 2019. Read more media coverage at http://emsw.vcu.edu/media-coverage/.

Restoring Dignity: "In 2013, Rao established a planning committee to guide what is called the East Marshall Street Well Project. Now, a steering committee is undertaking the implementation of recommendations from the Family Representative Council through the work of three subcommittees focused on the research, memorialization, and interment. At a Feb. 20 meeting, Kevin Allison, senior executive director for strategy and presidential administration at VCU, said the steering committee will work with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Smithsonian to help determine the feasibility of implementing the recommendations during the next couple of years. While the timeline and scope of the work VCU has left to sift through are still being determined, those in attendance at the December presentation emphasized the urgency of its completion.

 “We are here to say that the voices of the grave have been heard and that we have taken the time to be remorseful, to beg for forgiveness and to do whatever we can humanly think possible to attempt to bring back and restore a dignity that was denied,” said 6th District Richmond City Council member Ellen Robertson, who served on the East Marshall Street Well Planning Committee formed in 2013. “When the whole story is told, I want it to be said that each of you was here tonight as a witness to the work that needs to be done; and to the promises, we are making that it will be done and that we will continue this work.”

Here is a summary of the VCU East Marshall Street Well Project Family Representative Council’s finalized recommendations for research, memorialization and interment of the human remains found on the university’s Medical College of Virginia campus:  


  1. Return all ancestral remains to the city of Richmond.
  2. VCU should determine the feasibility of locating and retrieving remains possibly still located beneath the Kontos Medical Sciences Building. 
  3. No further analysis of the human remains or associated artifacts should take place prior to the approval of an East Marshall Street Well Project research agenda developed with community input.
  4. Future analysis of artifacts associated with the remains should involve only nondestructive methods.
  5. Research should include the study of the long-term implications, impacts and relevance of the East Marshall Street Well site history for contemporary African-American medical experiences.
  6. DNA and microbial analysis of the remains should be undertaken for the specific purposes of 1) reconstructing regional genetic ancestry; 2) assessing molecular sex of juveniles; 3) reconstructing health environments; 4) identifying possible biological relationships with a targeted sample of living descendants. 
  7. VCU should establish a research steering committee to assist with the request for proposal (RFP) development and the vetting and selection of proposals.


  1. Physical memorialization of the people whose remains were found and their experiences should be present at four locations within or near the Kontos Building. Most immediately, VCU should place signage indicating the excavation location and historical significance of the remains near the building entrance.
  2. Build an appropriate memorial and an interactive learning center at the site of interment.
  3. VCU should establish an annual memorialization event to be observed by all medical students prior to undertaking their first anatomy class.
  4. VCU should develop formal guidelines for appropriate university actions, including community engagement, in the event of the future discovery of human skeletal remains.
  5. VCU should establish a memorialization steering committee to assist with RFP development and the vetting and selection of proposals. 
  6. VCU should initiate a formal study of 1) the legacy of slavery within the history of the university and 2) mechanisms for redressing this legacy.


  1. There should be an interment of all remains and associated artifacts underground at the African Burial Ground in Shockoe Bottom.
  2. Hold an interment ceremony designed by funerary experts in western African burial traditions in consultation with the Family Representative Council.
  3. Bury the remains and related artifacts in coffin boxes designed and crafted by West African artisans.
  4. VCU should establish an interment steering committee to assist with RFP development and the vetting and selection of proposals.
  5. Smithsonian Family Representative Council VCU African-American history East Marshall Street Well Project Richmond history
by Sarah King, published April 1, 2019, posted at 11:41 AM

1 November 2017

Unfortunately, the VCU East Marshall Street Well Project has been unofficially on hold since the fall of 2016. The preparation of the revised draft of the Preliminary Recommendations Report (May 2016) was to have been completed by the spring of 2017, and then submitted to the Office of the President for review while the Implementation Committee was formed. This has not happened.

Problems can arise with any project, but with another six months gone by, there has been no notice given for the continued delay in the report's finalization. In fact, no updates have been posted on the website, and the Planning Committee which launched the EMSW process in 2013 has not been convened since the Family Representative Council began its work, and cannot offer an explanation. 

This situation is all the more disappointing because of how well this project began, something that is evident in amount of material posted to the website until June of 2016, and because of the creation of the Family Representative Council - contemporary African American people standing in for the families of the unnamed people whose remains were found in the 1860s era well after use in anatomical studies by students of the Medical College of Virginia. The FRC is one of the most unique and promising formations within the programs initiated by universities confronting the legacy of slavery and racism in their histories over the last 10 years. Most of those universities have created memorials to the enslaved and institutes to study this undervalued and under-represented topic, but have not elected to connect their engagement to the low-income, low-opportunity communities that typically surround them. The FRC has recommended itself would continue as a permanent council of the university to serve as a resource in the future. 

If none of the other leadership is prepared to take a bold step forward, the ball of progress will remain solidly in the court of VCU President Michael Rao. But if he doesn't have someone do something very soon, that bold step might need to come from unofficial sources instead. Given the history of anatomical studies, grave-robbing, and gross disregard for the sanctity of Black health, life and death at the heart of this issue, much less for the bones when dug up in 1994, it was always imperative for VCU to raise the bar of trust with this project; transparency of process and constant communication were central expectations. However, after nearly a year of silence, whatever the problem is with finalizing the report, the apparent comfort with the lack of communication is more than a little "too bad."

The East Marshall Street Well Project

The East Marshall Street Well Planning Committee implemented a community process that encouraged learning about the human remains discovered near East Marshall Street and sought community input in the formation of the Family Representative Council. The Family Representative Council will serve to represent the “descendant community” that will make recommendations on behalf of those individuals whose remains were discovered to support appropriate study, memorialization and reburial with dignity.

At this stage of the project, the Family Representative Council (FRC) has completed its year-long process of learning, consulting, brainstorming that resulted in the presentation of their recommendations to the East Marshall Street Well Project Planning Committee on Wednesday, May 26, 2016, to overwhelming support and gratitude. After a 2 week period for further Planning Committee review, the FRC then presented the same recommendations to the public during the final of 5 Community Conversations at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School - for review, discussion and approval on Saturday, June 4, 2016, from 9 am until 12 noon. 

Visit emsw.vcu.edu/recommendations/ review the DRAFT Final Recommendations document and give your feedback. 

Visit emsw.vcu.edu to experience the background information, resources, and updates to this very compelling public history project.

Click this link to view the trailer from the documentary that launched the project: Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies

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