The implosion of the Queen Lane public housing high rise earlier this year in Germantown helped uncover a nearby colonial-era past buried underneath.
A grave yard, which likely once was the burial place of slaves and free Blacks from an era dating to the nation’s birth, laid in the shadow of the tumbled building.
At the time, the possibility that the burial ground might be desecrated when the high rise came down and new housing units went up became a concern among community members. Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), explained that a series of community meetings were held from 2011 until Aug. 2014. He said even though no human remains had been found there, the burial site would be avoided when the new construction took place.
The site, a potter’s field, was a place where people of color who died in Germantown could be buried. A plaque will commemorate the colonial era cemetery’s location when the new housing is completed.
But the old potter’s field in Germantown is just one location in Philadelphia that connects local African Americans to the past of the ancestors who lived, loved, worked and died in the city. There are places in Philadelphia — hallowed or sacred ground — where the resting remains of African Americans have either been forgotten and uncared for in overgrown plots or desecrated, some community leaders said.
The sprawling Mt. Moriah Cemetery, along the Cobbs Creek Parkway in Southwest Philadelphia, and the Mother Bethel Burying Grounds in in the 400 block of S. 6th Street in South Philadelphia are two of those hallowed sites.
“That area of the city, which was called Southwark, was, for all intents and purposes, Black Philadelphia during the 18th and 19thcenturies,” said Joseph Certaine, former managing director of the city. Now he leads the Friends of Bethel Burying Ground Coalition and said the site should be a protected historical location.
Their efforts helped spur the Philadelphia Historical Commission, in a unanimous vote, to designate it in the Register of Historic Places, which means it is now legally protected against future disturbance.
“The city later changed the name to Queen Village, which often happens to a community when gentrification takes hold,” Certaine said. “We’re trying to make certain that there is no further activity on the graves; especially in the public restrooms that are situated directly over top of the grave site. These places connect us to our history, not just African-American history but the overall history of Philadelphia.”
“The reason why this is so important is that a lot of city’s most illustrious Black citizens are buried there and if there were Irish or German or Polish historical figures resting there this would have been a monument long ago,” said attorney Michael Coard. “What’s worse is that there’s a public bathroom over those graves, directly above them. Essentially people are being allowed to piss on the graves of Black folks and that is the epitome of desecration. We can’t allow this; we have to end the desecration and start the consecration.”
The Potter’s Field in Germantown
The potters field in Germantown dates back to 1755, when Blacks lived in what was known as Pulaski Town, according to the PHA. “It was a small group of homes on the western edge of Germantown and bordered Queen Lane, Morris Street, Wayne Avenue and Coulter Street. Early in Germantown’s history, residents organized two burial sites, one at the southern end called the Lower Burial Ground and a site in the north called the Upper Burial Ground. In the 1750’s a third location was selected, a potters field or stranger’s burying ground for Negros and Mulattoes.
The cemetery was used until the 1800s and later fell into decline. Gradually, city planners and lawmakers wrestled over who owned the site and who was responsible for maintenance.
By 1921 it had become a playground for local African-American children. In the 1950’s the federal government passed legislation allowing for the building of high rise apartments for low-income residents.
The PHA eventually acquired the land around Queen Lane. The old cemetery had been forgotten until the demolish of the high rise.
“We were very sensitive to the concerns regarding the potter’s field, and it was spoken of considerably during the series of community meetings we held,” said Jeremiah of the PHA. “People wanted to know that the graves of the ancestors would not be disturbed.”
But the Queen Lane cemetery is just one sacred site that was forgotten. A cemetery used to sit on Washington Square, at 7th and Walnut streets, where 2,600 Revolutionary War soldiers are buried, along with victims of the 1793 yellow fever plague and an unknown host of African Americans.
A location linked to the historic Philadelphia church, Mother Bethel A.M.E. is at the center of a dispute between concerned citizens and developers over the preservation of the Bethel Burying Ground, a cemetery where at least 5,000 African Americans, many of them historic figures, were laid to rest.
The Bethel Burying Ground
Beneath the Weccacoe Playground at 4th and Queen streets are the remains of African Americans, who many say were the founders of the Black community in the city during the 18th and 19th centuries. Recently, an organization known as Friends of Bethel Burying Ground, held a public libation ceremony to honor the ancestors resting there. But of major importance is the preservation of the burial ground as a protected historical site.
Ignatius Beck, a freed slave whose story is similar to that of Solomon Northrup, who was recently immortalized in the film “Twelve Years a Slave,” was a member of Mother Bethel and is among those buried there. Beck was re-enslaved on a trip to Virginia and was in forced servitude for two years before he escaped and returned to Philadelphia.
The Rev. Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel church, located near 6th and Lombard streets, bought the land for the cemetery in 1810. It was sold to the city in 1889, which is where the modern dispute has its roots. The complainants are the Friends of Bethel Burial Ground Coalition, the Queen Village Neighbors Association and the city, which has been holding community meetings to reach a resolution to the dispute.
Local historian Terry Buckalew uncovered the site eight years ago when working on a documentary about Octavius Catto. In 2013 the site was acknowledged by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and a marker placed there. Teams of archeologists began an investigation that year and confirmed human remains were there. The city replaced an aging water main that was also on the site and threatened to damage it.
Documentation supplied by Avenging the Ancestors and the Friends of Bethel Burying Ground confirm that many prominent historical African-American figures are buried there; Sarah Bass Allen, Stephen Laws, Rev. John Boggs and James Champion, an original member of Mother Bethel rest in its sacred soil.
“This is a very important site,” Certaine said. “At least 5,000 Blacks are underneath the playground and many of them were the builders of the African-American community in the city. Frankly there’s no question about this, the city needs to preserve and protect this site. We did file with the city’s historical commission. We’ve verified that there are at least 5,000 people there. A restaurant was placed on the graves and utility pipes run through there.
“The city wants to renovate the existing buildings, but we’re saying no. This needs to be a historical monument. Right now there’s only one public memorial that recognizes the African-American contribution to the building of this city at that’s at 20th and the Parkway, the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors. It was originally in Fairmount Park. It was moved to the Parkway in 1994 and is really the only city monument to its past African-American residents, veterans or otherwise.”
Coard, who also heads the community activist group Avenging the Ancestors, said the concerned people who want the location made an official historical site, are not going to back off.
“Let me start out by asking these questions: what if 5,000 Italian or Irish or Jewish or Polish American men, women and children from one of the most pivotal periods of American history were buried in a cemetery in Philadelphia?” he said. “What do you think would happen? Do you think there would be a city landmark or a state monument or a national treasure to honor it? The answer to that question is absolutely and without question.
“Now let’s flip that, what if there were 5,000 African descendants buried in that cemetery? There would be no landmark or monument. Instead it would be a forgotten trash dump that morphed into a city playground and that is exactly what happened to this church cemetery.”
Certaine said Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church was originally bought by Richard Allen and other trustees in 1791 and in 1810 they purchased a plot of land on what is now Queen and Lawrence Streets for a private cemetery. It was known as Bethel Burying Ground and it was necessary, because at the time the city’s white-owned and operated cemeteries would not allow Blacks to be interred.
In 1869, when the church fell on financial hardship, the trustees rented the grounds on a 10-year lease to Barnabas Bartol, for wagon storage. The agreement included a clause that those buried there would not be disturbed. Bartol, who owned a sugar refinery, began dumping rubbish there and the site deteriorated. It was sold to the city government in 1889. It was eventually converted it into a public garden and playground in 1908. In 1910, the city’s Department of Recreation took over, and the site became known as Weccacoe, a Lenni Lenape Indian word that means Pleasant Place.
Chief of staff for the Nutter administration Everett Gillison said city government has been sensitive to the issues surrounding the Bethel Burying Grounds and has invited and included all of the concerned parties to the table. There was a community meeting about the cemetery during the archeological excavation process and discussions as how to best memorialize those buried there.
“We’ve been working on this difficult issue, and although I haven’t been updated recently as to the status I was told we were going to seek the historical designation so that’s still happening,” Gillison said. “Last spring it was brought to our attention during the renovation of the playground that it had been the site of the cemetery. We want to be respectful to modern-day sensitivity about the issue and balance that with the historical perspective. I think we’ve been approaching this in a very respectful way.”
Mt. Moriah Cemetery
Mt. Moriah Cemetery is not so much a forgotten resting place as it was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate.
In 2011 the cemetery suddenly and officially closed and was abandoned by its owners. It was an opulent, rural resting place those who had passed on. Betsy Ross is among those who were buried there along with thousands of veterans, many of them African Americans. Records indicate that at least 85,000 people are resting in a location that spanned 380 acres at one time. Now it comprises 200 acres.
The details behind the abandoning of the site are complicated, according to Paulette Rhone, president of the board of the Friends of Mt. Moriah. No one has been buried there since 2011, and it had been sliding into neglect for years before that.
“It had been operated by the Mt. Moriah Cemetery Association but Horatio Jones Jr., its last living member, died in 2004. Legally no one was responsible and its acreage sits on the Philadelphia, Yeadon borough border and legal ownership is still being established,” Rhone said. “Regarding the African-American servicemen buried there, some of the sailors that were originally buried in the Naval Asylum grave yard, were later moved to Mount Moriah.
“We’re still not exactly sure of how many Black veterans are there but we are certain that we have many more African-American veterans buried throughout the cemetery than was previously thought. There was a landmark Supreme Court case of Henry Jones, a prominent African-American caterer whose funeral procession was turned away from the gates in 1875. The white lot owners threatened to remove their families if the cemetery owners allowed him to be buried in the cemetery. However, his sister-in-law and African-American sailors were already interred in the cemetery. There may be others from that era that we have not researched yet.”
Rhone said the cleaning and maintenance of the site is personal for her, since her husband, was buried there in 1993. She said she grew up in the area. She said it was one of the oldest cemeteries in the city that allowed Muslim burials. She reiterated that no one really knows how many Black veterans lie there.
“We’ve been maintaining it since 2011, and it’s an all-volunteer effort,” she said. “It started small, but since then we’ve managed to get a good support system in place. We’re righting an unconscionable wrong. They connect us to our past.”
For more information, visit: www.friendsofmountmoriahcemetery.org.