Ramona Africa was 29 years old on May 13, 1985, when she and Michael Moses Ward, 13, then known as Birdie Africa, became the only two survivors of the police bombing of the home of the Philadelphia activist group MOVE. Ward drowned when he was 41 in a hot tub on a cruise in the Caribbean. Ramona is now the only living survivor of the 1985 bombing which killed about 11 people, including five children and destroyed over 60 homes, leaving more than 200 homeless.
At age 66, she continues to preach against police brutality, war and oppression, which are the tenets of the radical back-to-nature group MOVE founded in 1972 by John Africa, a West Philadelphia native and Korean War veteran. Ramona continues her activism even as she battles lymphoma and other health complications from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a GoFundMe page.
Born on June 8, 1955, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ramona was raised by a Catholic mother in a middle-class home. She wanted to be a lawyer growing up but after experiencing racism right from her classroom, she started joining local activists and demonstrations to fight against injustice.
While a pre-law student at Temple University in 1979, Ramona was arrested for demonstrating against unfair housing policies. It was after her arrest that she became a dedicated member of MOVE, which attended her hearing. Two years prior to her arrest, Ramona had attended her first MOVE meeting on May 20, 1977.
“I believe that John Africa and his revolution plucked me out of the system at the right time,” she recalled in an interview. “Right before I would’ve gone into really being a lawyer.”
But six years after she became a full member of the Philadelphia-based group, its home would be bombed by the police, killing eleven members of the group. To date, the incident, which was sparked by confrontations between the religious organization and the police, remains one of the worst tragedies in the history of Philadelphia.
MOVE is described as a mostly Black “political and religious organization whose principles were anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-corporation.” Its founder, John Africa, was described as a “dreadlocked messiah figure”. His followers also had locks and changed their last names to Africa out of respect and reverence for him and the continent as a whole. The members, who ate a diet of raw foods, believed in homeschooling and a back to nature philosophy, were against war and police brutality.
However, they usually had confrontations with Philadelphia police, including a 1978 standoff with authorities which ended in the death of a police officer. Nine members of the organization were also convicted and given life sentences following the incident.
At the time of the 1985 MOVE bombing, the group lived in a quiet and middle-class African-American neighborhood on Osage Avenue. Their neighbors would, however, start complaining to authorities that members of the group made “profane tirades” while their children “rifled alongside rats through the house’s compost and garbage,” an article on the Guardian said.
Following the complaints, then-Mayor Wilson Goode, the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia, gave the order to evict them. On May 13, 1985, police raided the organization’s home after several members were indicted for various crimes. What was also supposed to be a normal evacuation turned violent and the end was not what many had probably hoped for.
“We was in the cellar for a while … and tear gas started coming in and we got the blankets. And they was wet. And then we put them over our heads and started laying down,” Ward, who became one of the survivors, would later describe how the tragedy unfolded.
After the state police helicopter dropped two bombs on the house of MOVE, John Africa and 11 others died. Ramona, who was then the minister of communications for the group, and Ward were the only survivors. The fire would eventually destroy about 60 homes that were not even affiliated with MOVE.
Ramona, in a 2015 interview, recounted the incident: “Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor came out and said ‘Attention MOVE, this is America. You have to abide by the laws and rules of [the United States]’, words to that effect. I’m still trying to figure out what he meant by that…After they made that announcement, they didn’t just try to wait us out or anything. What was the hurry?”
She also said of the bombing: “We tried several times to get out, but each time we were shot back into the house. This was a clear indication that they didn’t intend for any of us to survive that attack.”
Accounts state that firefighters delayed fighting the blaze out of fear that the armed group which had exchanged fire with police before the bomb was dropped, would target them. The Vox reports that even though two grand jury investigations cited the bombing as “reckless, ill-conceived, and hastily-approved,” no one was ever criminally charged for the attack.
But Ramona was arrested after the bombing on riot and conspiracy charges that put her in prison for seven years. In 1986, the MOVE Commission issued a report saying the city should never have dropped a bomb on an occupied rowhouse. And in 1996, four years after Ramona was released from prison, the City of Philadelphia awarded her $500,000 for pain, suffering, and injuries in connection to the MOVE bombing incident.
At the time, she had returned to her duties as the group’s minister of communication. She later started holding lectures and other events on behalf of MOVE. Sadly, in 2018, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. It was discovered following a stroke which left her temporarily unable to walk. “Ramona Africa’s health is critical at this point — very critical,” MOVE spokesperson Sue Africa said after Ramona’s condition was announced in 2018.
“She has cancer, which we are very suspicious of, where it originated from … Because we have had two MOVE members, Merle Africa and Phil Africa — very healthy — die from so-called cancer under very suspicious circumstances.”
A GoFundMe campaign led to thousands of donors donating more than $85,000. Ramona’s illness is “a direct result of the on-going war waged on our Move Family by this government,” the GoFundMe page stated.
As Ramona continues to fight for survival, the universities of Princeton and Pennsylvania have apologized to the MOVE organization for keeping the remains of victims of the horrific 1985 bombing instead of returning them to their families. The apology from both institutions came after a report by The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that the remains of children who died in the bombing had been kept in the Penn Museum for several years.
Members of MOVE, in April, rejected the apologies. “I could not imagine, in my worse nightmare, that the government would drop a bomb on us and kill my brothers and sisters. And I could not have imagined 36 years later that they would be displaying parts of our family as if they’re some dinosaur relics that they dug up,” Mike Africa, a member, said.
“Our family has been through so much, and the abuse and the trauma continues. But we are strong, and we ain’t never giving in.”