The missing body of Addie Mae Collins

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a major event in the history of civil rights in the United States. Members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a box of dynamite at the church, which was a major organizing center for the black community and civil rights protests. The resulting explosion killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

That part of the story is pretty well-known. What isn't well known is the fact that one of those girls, Addie Mae Collins, may well have been a victim of racism after her death, thanks to a longstanding tradition where white medical schools raided black cemeteries for dissection cadavers. I happened to stumble across this story last week, while reading Harriet Washington's book, Medical Apartheid. The tale, and how it connects to racism both historical and modern, haunted me all day yesterday.

First off, Medical Apartheid is a must-read, detailing the disturbing history of how medical science has used black Americans, living and dead, as part of experimentation and training. It's a story that goes from colonial times all the way up to the present. One of the chapters in this book is all about the cadaver trade and how black Americans have historically made up a disproportionate percentage of those cadavers. And this isn't just an old story from Victorian times. In 1963, when Addie Mae Collins died, it was still relatively common in the South to harvest bodies from cemeteries and the cemeteries chosen were usually the ones that served the black community.

All of this is important background to understand why Washington thinks that the body of Addie Mae Collins may have ended up on a dissection table.

… Janie Gaines and Sarah Cox know from experience that black cadavers tend to disappear. In January 1998, the sisters frowned as they surveyed the crumbling headstones, trash, and tangled weeds strangling Greenwood, the Birmingham, Alabama, cemetery in which their family had long ago laid their sister, Addie Mae Collins. Although most Americans do not know her name, Addie Mae is a national icon of sorts. The thirteen-year-old was a martyr of the civil rights movement, one of four girls who were murdered in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church a few days after the city's schools were integrated. Martin Luther King, Jr., eulogized her, and her tombstone bears the rousing inscription "She Died So Freedom Might Live."

It was thirty years before her sisters could bear to visit her grave, and when they saw its neglected state, they immediately arranged to have Addie Mae moved to another, better-maintained cemetery. However, workers who opened the grave recoiled in shock: It was empty, devoid of casket and corpse. Addie Mae's body, like so many buried in black cemeteries throughout the South, is missing. No one can know with certainty who took the body or why, but many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists' tables.

The federal Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, passed in 1968, effectively led to the end of grave robbing and the deliberate bias that went with it. But it's worth noting, as we think about racism and the way it tends to work in America today — that is, as entrenched systems and socially supported biases, rather than as intentional expressions of overt hatred — that there are still some big disparities in which people end up as med school cadavers and organ donors. Those disparities stem from laws that allow for medical schools to take possession of bodies of the homeless (who are more likely to be black than white) and "presumed consent" laws, which allow hospitals and coroners to assume that a dead person would want to donate their body parts.

This is different from intentionally seeking out the bodies of black people because you think they're less human or that their consent matters less, Washington writes. But the result is that minorities still end up representing a disproportionate percentage of bodies used in research and medicine, and those bodies are still often being used without consent.