Local church joins fight for African-American graveyard

Coalition is asking city to preserve South Philly site that contains thousands of bodies.

Workers excavate a tombstone inside the Bethel Burial Ground in Queens Village, South Philadelphia. | Courtesy Terry Buckalew
Workers excavate a tombstone inside the Bethel Burial Ground in Queens Village, South Philadelphia. | Courtesy Terry Buckalew

A coalition of more than 65 activists have caused the city to halt $500,000 in renovations on the 124-year-old Weccacoe playground in Queens Village after the discovery of an historic cemetery unearthed the remains of more than 5,000 African Americans. 

Joining in the fight is the Church of the Advocate, located on 18th Street several blocks from Main Campus, which has hosted weekly meetings of the Friends of Bethel Burying Ground, who support preserving the graveyard.

The Friends of Bethel Burying Ground has asked the city to replace a nearly 200-year-old, six-inch water main located at the beginning of the burial ground that has the potential to wash out the graves located underneath if broken. The activists have also asked the city to dismantle a small building housing urinals that have been determined to be right above the graves, schedule an engineering study, replace the fencing around the perimeter of the burial ground and work with the coalition to commemorate the African Americans buried there.

“The fact that the City of Philadelphia has had to be persuaded to secure this valuable and significant historic site, as it would any other in Philadelphia County, is telling,” said Joseph Certaine, the leader of Friends of Bethel Burying Ground. “At the Bethel Burying Ground, the remains of the interred lay just inches below the surface. We don’t want any further desecration of these graves.”

The Rev. Renee McKenzie-Hayward, vicar to the Church of the Advocate, said the city should take the burial ground more seriously. “From our perspective we say our ancestors are buried in this and so this is sacred ground and we just want it to be treated in that kind of way.”

The Bethel Burial ground became one of the first privately owned African-American cemeteries when it was purchased by the trustees of the Mother Bethel Church in 1810 for $1,600 as a third of an acre of land outside the city limits to be used as a cemetery. At the time, blacks were not allowed to be buried in cemeteries with whites. The property was active until 1864 when Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner reported the cemetery was “not credible to us as a church.” The trustees of Mother Bethel later sold the cemetery to the city for $10,000 in 1889, when it was turned into Philadelphia’s first ‘pocket park’ for children.

“If there were revolutionary soldiers buried here that they didn’t know about, if there were white Union Civil War heroes buried here, would you walk over them?” said Terry Buckalew, an independent historian who specializes in 19th century Philadelphia African-American history.

“Would you allow people to walk over the graves?”

Buckalew discovered the cemetery eight years ago while working on a documentary about civil rights activist Octavius Catto. After searching through cemetery return records, Buckalew was able to find information on 2,500 individuals buried there. In 2013 the site was recognized as a historical marker and archeologists were able to conduct three investigations last summer confirming the remains through coffins, grave shafts and bodies.

More than two-thirds of the remains were identified as children who died of typhoid fever and tuberculosis. The remaining bodies were identified as many African-American leaders and pioneers that created one of the first free black communities in the United States, including Emilia Brown, Ignatius Beck and the Laws family.

Of the individuals identified only six living descendants have been traced.

“I’m for respecting anyone who has died and been buried in this area but I also think that one of the ways to celebrate what’s happened here is to let the children enjoy the space,” said Linda Scheffield, a resident on the 400 block of Catharine Street for 12 years, “I mean, this has been 100 years. There’s no one left down there to be bothered by the water drainage.”

Councilman Mark Squilla, whose 1st District includes the Weccacoe playground, said a study will be completed shortly on whether or not to abandon the six inch pipe or determine if the Philadelphia Water Department can replace it.

The burial ground takes up one third of the site and stretches from the entrance of Queen Street to the alleyways in Laurence Street.

“This debate about desecration, that’s out of our hands, we’re only saying our playground work doesn’t overlap the cemetery,” Duncan Spencer, the chairman of the Friends of Weccacoe Playground said. “Whether there’s traction to the argument that children shouldn’t be playing above it I don’t know.”

A community conversation about the future of the burial site will be hosted by Mayor Nutter’s administration on May 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the African American Museum of Philadelphia on Seventh and Arch streets.

Sarai Flores can be reached at sarai.abisag.flores@temple.edu.

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