Global Initiatives Grant Report – The East Marshall Street Well Project: High School Science curriculum on ethical practice with Ancestral Human Remains of African Descent

In August 2022 Tal Simmons received a Global Initiatives Grant to build capacity in anthropology through the, "The East Marshall Street Well Project: High School Science curriculum on ethical practice with Ancestral Human Remains of African Descent." Below is her report.

This curriculum project is the culmination of a grant working to share with students the VCU/Richmond East Marshall Street Well Project (EMSWP) focused around the theme of the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains

Over the last year, the EMSWP “Ethical Treatment of Human Remains” curriculum was presented to students in Richmond and surrounding counties five times.  Dr. Simmons, Dr. Filipa Simao (postdoctoral fellow), and students in the Department of Forensic Sciences taught the lessons. Victoria Solana (MS Ed student), Dr. Edmondson (Education), and Dr. Simmons (Forensic Science) developed the lessons, which were refined by Department of Forensic Science postdoctoral fellows and students after being taught in each of the classrooms. The feedback that we have received from the students (see below) has been reflective of the need for lessons that showcase local and historical issues affecting our community that have arisen in our own backyard.

The East Marshall Street Well Project (EMSWP) research is the result of a multi-year community consultation concerning remains of ancestors discovered during the construction of the Kontos Building on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical College of Virginia campus in 1994. A well, used as an anatomy pit, was uncovered and subsequently identified by the state archaeologist; unfortunately, the archaeologist was given only a single weekend to recover the human remains from a back dirt pile and no additional excavation of the feature was permitted. As it was demonstrable that the well continued to greater depth, there are undoubtedly additional remains still interred under the current building.

Community consultations began in the spring of 2015 to identify and designate individuals, who would represent an EMSW “descendant community,” as members of the Family Representative Council (FRC). The FRC developed recommendations for research, memorialization and interment of the Ancestral Remains; its preliminary report was completed in 2016 and the final recommendations were presented to the community in 2018. The full FRC report can be accessed at In January 2022, the Department of Forensic Science’s Forensic Anthropology and DNA Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) began specific analyses approved by the Family Representative Council.

The EMSW Project has developed as an example to the scientific community concerning the respectful analysis of ancestral human remains and public engagement and education on medical racism, specifically towards those of African Descent. This initiative (1) addressed capacity building within the university by training a diverse community of undergraduate and graduate research students in the ethical treatment of ancestral human remains during the conduct of forensic anthropology, genetic sequencing, microbiome, and trace isotope research; and (2) allowed the building of primary educational capacity and learning pipelines for students in high schools.

Notably, community outreach is a requisite of researcher involvement in the EMSWP, which follows theoretical and methodological approaches to public engagement first articulated at the New York African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.  This project has never drifted from the goal of uplifting individuals and their communities, who were (and are still) subject to mistreatment. The Family Representative Council, along with the VCU lab researchers, places an emphasis on communicating all aspects of the research to local Richmond High Schools. A majority of Richmond public schools consist of minority students, a large proportion of which is African American. Early and positive exposure to scientific research is not often available to youth of color, especially research concerned with such complex DNA technologies. We seek to demystify the scientific process and, it is hoped, to motivate underrepresented minority students to engage in and potentially pursue a scientific career in the future, all while giving them an opportunity to connect with the history of their city and community on a deeper level.

The curriculum was presented at Franklin Military Academy (15-18, and 26 May 2023;  11-15 September 2023; and 5-9 February 2024), and Open High School (24, 25, and 31 May 2023) and Carver Academy (7, 9, 13, 15, and 27 November 2023).  Feedback from students who participated in the five pilot curriculum deliveries stated:

  • “I feel like they did an amazing job explaining everything honestly and learning about the different ways they go about delicately conducting research and linking people to their ancestors is truly amazing to me.”
  • “Even at a time like [this] we still struggle with racial profiling and some people don’t care but I feel we need to connect more with community and try to get everyone to understand how important this is and not just bones in a well.”
  • “I liked this a lot and I feel like [it] should go around, and this has to be known and never forgotten because this is a part of history!”

We made the 5-6 day lecture and lab activities based curriculum openly available upon completion of the pilot.  The curriculum was also presented at the Virginia Association of Science Teachers (VAST) conference (November 2023).  To access the curriculum, click on the link ( ) and navigate to the “view resource” button.