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Facing the Past

Dear Swarthmore Community Members, 

The histories of institutions of higher learning often contain disturbing chapters. Swarthmore College is no exception. I am writing to you today to share an aspect of our history that requires us to reflect on and confront our past. This reckoning will ultimately help us shape a better future. 

In April 2022, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article1 about a Native American burial ground in Chester County. It briefly mentioned that in 1899, two Swarthmore professors excavated a human skeleton there and moved it to the College. We immediately looked into the circumstances referenced in the story, but that initially yielded little information. I later learned that the two people referenced in the article were Spencer Trotter, who taught natural history at the College at that time, and Bird T. Baldwin, a member of the Class of 1900. The article does not mention them by name or reveal that, later that year, Trotter displayed that skeleton and the funerary items found with it on campus during a meeting2 of the Joseph Leidy Scientific Association. Trotter, a longtime Biology Department faculty member who held a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, retired from the College in 1926 and died in 1931.

Upon learning this information, I formed a small group of colleagues to coordinate an examination of the College archives and the Biology Department’s osteology collection to determine if the remains that Trotter excavated were held on campus. The individuals involved in that work included Chief of Staff and Secretary of the College Erin Brownlee Dell, Assistant Vice President for Communications Alisa Giardinelli, General Counsel Sharmaine LaMar, and Associate Dean of the Faculty for Academic Programs and Research and Associate Professor of Psychology Cat Norris.

We also engaged Kimberly Williams, a bioarchaeologist, chair of Temple University’s Anthropology Department, and director for Temple’s Center of the Humanities. Her scholarship rests at the intersection of field archaeology and skeletal biology, and she has provided expert consultations concerning bone specimens for other institutions.  

The group interviewed the current chairs of the Biology Department, the Psychology Department, the Sociology & Anthropology Department, curators from the Friends Historical Library, and the director of Special Collections as well as other faculty members, to document any knowledge of the holdings of human remains as well as Indigenous American artifacts.

We also consulted with representatives from the National Museum of the American Indian who have extensive experience with and a commitment to repatriation, and we received guidance from an official with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) division of the National Park Service. 

Based on this careful work, we can say that there is no indication that the remains unearthed by Trotter and Baldwin remain on campus, and there is no evidence that the College held other Native American human remains. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to identify how long the remains were on campus or where they currently reside. Our work to try to answer those questions is ongoing. And none of these facts change the distressing truth that more than 120 years ago and for an unknown period thereafter, these remains were held and displayed here. 

I must be absolutely clear: No matter the educational intentions or that these practices may have been commonplace at the time they occurred, these remains should have been treated with dignity and respect and should never have been removed from their burial site. Considering these actions today, with our values, convictions, and compassion, the act of collecting any Native American remains is unethical and inexcusable. I deeply regret these actions, and on behalf of Swarthmore College, I apologize for the harm they have caused. 

In an effort to begin to repair that harm, I have committed to several immediate actions, detailed below. 

Spencer Trotter
As part of this effort, Kimberly Williams and members of the group mentioned above spent time researching Trotter and his work. Given historical evidence regarding Trotter’s activities in the excavation of a Native American burial site, the collection and display of human remains at Swarthmore, and his writings focused on racial hierarchy, we will develop a process to reexamine the name of Trotter Hall.  

The Osteology Collection
Our recent investigation prompted us to reevaluate Biology’s osteology collection overall. Though the College has no known paper records of when the human specimens in the collection were acquired, based on our research and practices at the time, we believe they were most likely sourced sometime before the 1940s through medical supply companies.  

Dr. Williams’ research and approach have led us to reflect on the use of human specimens and their source of origin. For some historical background and reference, Philadelphia — as the location of the country’s first medical school — was a hub for the legal sale of human skeletons for medical and research purposes. However, we now know that those specimens often were not sourced ethically and may have come disproportionately from underrepresented populations. 

Regardless of whether they were obtained legally and in keeping with the accepted practice at that time, the human specimens in the Biology Department collection likely came from people without their consent — people who were denied their traditions, rituals, and right to rest in peace. Although the majority had not been used for decades, we have decommissioned all human specimens in the Biology Department’s osteology collection. We have ensured that they are stored safely and securely and will be treated with the utmost care as we work to determine the most appropriate process to respectfully remove them from the College’s holdings.

While there is no indication that there are Native American remains on campus, we live on the outskirts of a city where the trade in human remains was once common practice.  This shameful legacy includes the fact that the bones of once-living humans, buried or not, and usually poor, enslaved, or otherwise marginalized, were often traded and used without their consent. I acknowledge here, with deep appreciation, those Native Americans whose activism established NAGPRA, demanding respectful treatment of their ancestors.

Looking Ahead
While we have thoroughly examined the College archives and the Biology Department’s osteology collection, a collegewide, comprehensive review is necessary to better understand the College’s holdings, whether they are part of official collections or not. In collaboration with the Provost's Office, I am forming an audit committee to conduct such a review. The review will ensure we aren’t in possession of anything that should not be held here. This committee will also develop a more robust College collections policy to set collegewide standards of ethical practice for the acquisition, use, maintenance, repatriation, and disposition of all items within the College’s collections.

The circumstances I’ve described above are deeply troubling, and I recognize that they may leave many of you feeling some combination of sadness, disappointment, and anger. You may also have additional questions, and I am committed to finding opportunities in the next academic year for us to discuss and continue to reflect on these and related topics in the future. As a community of thinkers, learners, and doers, together we will shape a future aligned with our mission and our shared commitment to building a better Swarthmore and a more just world. 

Val Smith
Swarthmore College

Kummer, Frank. “A Native American burial ground in Chester County is returning to its ‘rightful owners.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 13, 2022.

2Friends' Intelligencer and Journal, 1899-12-16: Vol 56 Issue 50, p. 954.