- Ash Daniel
- Shawn Utsey's film about the plundering of African-American cadavers, "Until the Well Runs Dry," will be shown on local public TV this week. "For African-Americans, burial is a sacred event," the VCU professor says.
Tales of boogeymen, grave robbers and cadaver markets might not seem like the norm for most professors, but for Shawn Utsey, head of Virginia Commonwealth University's African-American studies department, it's all in a day's work.
More than a year in the making, Utsey's documentary, "Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies" focuses on the abuse of African-Americans by the medical community. The documentary will air on local television stations Nov. 23.
Utsey's last documentary was the award-winning "Meet Me in the Bottom," chronicling the efforts to identify and memorialize a slave burial ground in Shockoe Bottom. While working on that film, Utsey began hearing rumors that the Medical College of Virginia stole bodies from that graveyard for experiments.
"It turns out that wasn't quite true, but that piqued my interest," Utsey says. "It is true that they were snatching bodies from Oakwood Cemetery and others."
Early medical colleges were in desperate need of cadavers to teach students, and it was common practice for institutions to illegally steal the recently buried from black cemeteries. Richmond was an epicenter of the cadaver market, supplying bodies to the Medical College of Virginia, the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania.
At the center of Richmond's body snatching scene was an African-American man, hired by MCV, named Chris Baker. His job was to keep abreast of deaths in the black community. At night he and his assistants would sneak into cemeteries and steal the recently deceased.
Baker's position was not uncommon. "He had counterparts all over the country, like Grandison Harris at the Medical College of Georgia," Utsey says.
While tracing her family's history, professional genealogist Patricia Clark discovered that Harris was her great-great-granduncle.
"Grandison Harris was a slave," Clark says. "He was purchased from South Carolina by the Medical College of Georgia." Though Harris' job title was officially "porter," those who knew him had a different name: "resurrection man."
"He had no choice," Clark says. "He was a slave, and had to do what he was told."
While Utsey's documentary initially focused solely on the act of grave robbing, he became more intrigued by how the practice led to African-American's mistrust of medical establishments. Predating later offenses against the black population like the Tuskegee Institute syphilis experiment, Utsey says this earlier practice is the initial root of tension between the communities.
"For African-Americans particularly, burial is a sacred event," Utsey says. "The reverence for ancestors is so great that you'll find that many black families will even set a plate at the table for a deceased relative during Thanksgiving."
Being the supplier of stolen bodies did have its drawbacks for Baker and Harris.
"They were pariahs in the black community," Utsey says. "On the other hand, they were respected and revered by the medical community."
Parents of the era would use tales of these grave robbers to scare their children into behaving. Some of the individuals Utsey interviewed for his documentary are still wary of being near the medical college after dark.
"Black folks knew they were more vulnerable to grave robbing," Utsey says. "I think that tension is still there." S
"Until the Well Runs Dry: Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies," airs Nov. 23 at 10 p.m. on WCVE and WHTJ.