39 Years Later – The City That Bombed Itself  

June 3, 2024

This year we acknowledge the 39th anniversary of the day that the City of Philadelphia dropped bombs on its own city and its own citizens.  On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police issued warrants against a few members of the Christian Movement for Life – known as MOVE (not an acronym) – for crimes that included parole violations, possession of firearms, and threats of terrorism.  Leading up until this point, neighbors living near MOVE headquarters had complained of loitering, littering, and noise pollution.  Despite the actions of the police department and the feelings of the community surrounding the organization, it’s important to remember that none of the charges or complaints brought are or should be punishable by death. 

MOVE was founded in 1972 by Philadelphia native Vincent Leaphart.  That same year, he changed his name to John Africa, his way of honoring the continent where life began; many members of the organization would go on to do the same.  Amongst their focus of Black liberation and protesting police brutality, MOVE was also concerned with other issues including cruelty against animals, environmentalism, and education.  Leading up until the bombing, members of MOVE had experienced multiple incidents with the authorities; a shoot-out in 1978 between the police left one police officer dead and nine members charged with third-degree murder. 

In 1981, MOVE relocated to West Philadelphia to 6221 Osage Avenue, occupying a row house which supported the group’s idea of close and communal living.  Prior to the bombing, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Gregore J. Sambor and Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode labeled MOVE a terrorist organization, leading police to obtain arrest warrants.  On the morning of May 13th, 1985, with the surrounding neighborhood cleared, Sambor stood outside MOVE headquarters and notified the occupants of the warrants.  At this point, water and electricity had been shut off, and MOVE members were given a measly 15 minutes to exit before the police resorted to force.  Officers threw tear canisters at the building, which then resulted in MOVE members and the police exchanging gunfire for an hour and a half.  That afternoon, after more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired by the police, Sambor gave the bomb order.

Flying in a helicopter above the compound, Philadelphia Police Department Lieutenant Frank Powell dropped two 1.5 pounds bombs on the roof of the house, then igniting a gasoline-powered generator.  After letting the fire burn for more than half an hour, firefighters attempted to move in to contain the blaze, but more gunfire resulted in them being told to retreat. 

Even when the fire spread to uncontrollable levels, little action was taken by the Philadelphia Police Department or Fire Department to stop it.  In total, 61 buildings would be destroyed. Evidence later came out that Police Commissioner Sambor issued the order of delay, telling them to “Let the fire burn”.  This quote would be later immortalized in the 2013 documentary about the incident.  The mismanagement and recklessness of the police department resulted in the deaths of six adults, five children, and left 250 people homeless.  Those who were killed were: John Africa, Rhonda Africa, Theresa Africa, Frank Africa, Conrad Africa, Tree Africa, Delisha Africa, Netta Africa, Little Phil Africa, Tomaso Africa, and Raymond Africa. The only two survivors were Birdie Africa and Ramona Africa, the latter of who later reported that the police fired at those trying to escape the building. 

Federal court later found that the City of Philadelphia was guilty of violating constitutional rights and used excessive force. 11 years after the bombing, the city was made to pay $1.5 million to Ramona and relatives of two of those who perished in the building.  20 years after the bombing, $12.83 million was ordered to be paid to the residents who were made homeless by the violence.  The Philadelphia City Council did not approve a resolution to apologize for the bombing until November 2020.

Further controversy followed the city through 2021 when it was revealed that the bones of Tree Africa (aged 14 at the time of death) and Delisha Africa (aged 12 at the time of death) had been kept at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology after the bombing.  They’d since been transferred to Princeton University researchers, but Princeton admitted that they were unsure of the exact whereabouts of the bodies.  The mishandling of human remains is symptomatic of a larger problem: much like the artifacts of our ancestors that have been stolen and placed behind glass boxes in museums thousands of miles from the land that they originate from, the remains of marginalized people were and continue to be seen as relics, as pieces for study, or for experiment. Even in death, the city failed to treat the victims with respect, reverence, and return them to their grieving families. Imagine a world where the ribs or skull or femur of a wealthy, white individual who had been murdered by the state was put on display in a university classroom, or shoved in a closet gathering dust, or disappeared completely? This continued brutalization of the victims can dilute even the most sincere apology.    

The Philadelphia MOVE Bombing was not taught to me in school.  I don’t remember when I first learned about it, only that it was through my own research – maybe a footnote in a book I was reading, or a brief mention from a speaker I sought out to hear.  As I continue to learn the information that was never introduced to me in curriculum or educational settings, the more I understand the importance of seeking out the knowledge myself and the value of history. 

Written by Jazmine Chilo