EDITOR’S ESSAY: What to do about our horrific past? (answer) Reclaim African American ancestries for research, identity construction, and memorialization.

The recent, brazen public marches of avowed racists, Nazis, and white supremacists are not unheard of in American history. African Americans (AA) have long lived in a country that has extolled our enemies, neglected our heroes, and fostered unpalatable versions of history that minimize and distort our positive contributions (Gates 2011). What is the remedy? Are we to be left disempowered of our own true history? Are we to be left wondering where we have come from? Why we suffer disproportionately from certain diseases? Why we live shorter lives, compared to European Americans? While there are no guarantees that the removal of statues in honor of the proponents of our ancestor’s enslavement and subjugation will improve contemporary intra-ethnic relations, it is likely that an increase in knowledge of the African American past and the strategies used by our ancestors to foster resilience and survival can benefit us today.
Among AA historically, detailed medical insights of past generations are not readily available or adequately studied (Byrd and Clayton, 2000, Gamble 2010, Pohl 2012, Kenny 2013). The protection of precious bioarcheological remains and the history of African Americans and their diasporas within the United States is amiss; no legal backing similar to the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is currently available to ensure and guarantee the safe-handling, respectful care, and transition of power to descendants or the AA community (Leone et al 2005). No legislation exists to ensure that the systematic research on AA skeletal and dental materials is undertaken to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the historical depths of the health disparities currently afflicting African Americans. The sciences of biological anthropology and archaeology hold many promises of the discovery of links and lineages in the past that can help us better understand the present medical demographics and aid the design of future precision medical science (Halperin, 2004).
At the Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) we have begun to embark on a project that we hope will provide federal and state legislation to protect African American skeletal and dental remains uncovered during the process of land development, road construction, and other projects that disrupt the burial sites of these 16th-20th century individuals. Our goal is to secure these AA ancestral remains for research, identification, and memorialization here at Howard University. The Cobb Collection, one of the major collections in the Cobb Research Laboratory, provides an avenue to enrich the study of AA history scientifically, protect the legacy of past ancestry through the curation of the remains, and provide the necessary linkage between the past medical struggles within the AA community and the current health disparities. This may then allow researchers to find reasonable and appropriate solutions for the future improvement in health. Adding to this collection is paramount for our improved research capacity. It is our goal to increase the numbers of individual remains housed in the CRL through the repatriation of AA skeletal and dental remains currently languishing in private collections, abandoned unwanted in local universities, or relegated to the trash dumpsters at construction sites.
These individuals are an integral part of our past. We cannot correctly predict our future without reference to our past and current status. Research on these ancestral remains, given the sophistication of contemporary scientific techniques and our current capabilities (Jackson 2015), can reveal past susceptibilities that make us more prone today to some of the major causes of morbidity and mortality among AAs. This knowledge can also help us understand why and how we are protected from disorders and diseases that usually affect other human groups.
Access to AA ancestors for their research potentials is a way to honor their centrality to our current existence. From an analysis of their biological histories we can reconstruct which geographical regions they came from, what were their mating patterns, what kinds of stresses and constraints they faced, through their epigenome, what they ate, what diseases they were exposed to, and how much of this legacy has been passed down to us. In this way, systematic research of AA skeletal and dental remains can lead to identification and influence identity formation, which is the right of every ethnic group.
Finally, we have the right to memorialize those who came before us. The AA presence is under-referenced in the scientific and social scientific literatures. Yet, we retain a tremendous debt to those who came before us, who survived the institutionalized injustices,
"made a way where there was none", and through a myriad of sacrifices, laid a solid foundation for our contemporary opportunities.

Fatimah L.C. Jackson, Ph.D., Professor of Biology and Director, W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory, Howard University



  • Byrd, W. M and Clayton, L.A. (2000) An American Health Dilemma: Race, Medicine, and Health Care in the United States 1900-2000 (volume 2)1st edition. ISBN-13:978-0415927376.
  • Gamble, V.N. (2010) "There wasn't a lot of comforts in those days:" African Americans, public health, and the 1918 influenza epidemic. Public Health Rep. Apr;125 Suppl 3:114-22.
  • Gates, H.L (2011) Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 ISBN-13: 978-0307476852 Knopf Publisher, 512 pp. Halperin, E. C. (2004). Paleo-oncology: the role of ancient remains in the study of cancer. Perspect Biol Med, 47(1), 1-14.
  • Jackson, F. L. (2015). The Cobb Collection: Current status and future research directions. Am J Hum Biol. doi:10.1002/ajhb.22705
  • Kenny, S.C. (2013) The development of medical museums in the antebellum American South: slae bodies in networks of anatomical exchange. Bull Hist. Med 87(1):32-62 doi:10.1353/bhm.2013.0016.
  • Leone, M. P., Laroche C. J. & Babiar, J.J. The Archaeology Of Black Americans In Recent Times. Annual Review of Anthropology 34.1 (2005): 575-98. Print
  • Pohl, L.M. (2012) African American southerners and white physicians: medical care at the turn of the twentieth century. Bull Hist Med 86(2):178-205 (Summer)
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