Hard Histories Methods: Studying Human Remains at Hopkins and Beyond

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Join Hard Histories at Hopkins for a virtual discussion about innovative methods and ethical issues in bioarchaeological investigations, particularly pertaining to university and museum spaces. What moral issues arise when institutions house and study human remains? How can Black feminist theory shed novel light on – and provide novel solutions to – these questions? Collectively, this conversation will offer insight on how Johns Hopkins University and related institutions can newly think about their own holdings. In this discussion, scholars Dr. Aja Lans and Jessica Leigh Hester will be in conversation with Hard Histories at Hopkins Project Director Dr. Martha S. Jones.


Jessica Leigh Hester is a science journalist and historian. She is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins, studying grave-robbing, dissection, and the long afterlives of medical specimens made from co-opted human remains in the Eastern United States from 19th century to the present. She is committed to public history and the digital humanities. Her journalistic work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, New Yorker, The Atlantic, CityLab, Atlas Obscura, and more. Her second book is forthcoming from Random House.

Aja Lans is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research integrates Black feminism and critical race theory into bioarchaeological investigations. A major area of focus is the objectification of human remains contained within universities and museum collections. She argues for the repatriation of Black Ancestors who are “owned” by such institutions. Outside of the academy she consults on cultural resource management projects.

Dr. Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History, and a Professor at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. She is also a legal and cultural historian whose research explores how Black people have shaped the story of American democracy, and today extends to work on memorial landscapes and family memoir. Jones directs the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project which, since 2020, has examined the role of slavery and racism at the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital.

Jones’ most recent book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (2020), received the 2021 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. Her 2018 book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, was recognized with awards from the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, American Society for Legal History, and Baltimore City Historical Society Scholars.

This event is part of a series of conversations hosted by Hard Histories in spring 2024, exploring the histories of Blackness, slavery, and racism in the Maryland area and beyond. Launched in fall 2020, the Hard Histories at Hopkins Project examines the role that racism and discrimination have played at Johns Hopkins. Blending research, teaching, public engagement, and the creative arts, Hard Histories aims to engage our broadest communities—at Johns Hopkins and in Baltimore—in a frank and informed exploration of how racism has been produced and permitted to persist as part of our structure and our practice.