When I first wrote in a local news magazine three years ago about this cultural outrage, scholarly research had indicated that approximately 3,000 Black women, men, and children from the 1800s in the historic Bethel Burying Ground cemetery were desecrated under the city’s Weccacoe Playground and a trash dump at Queen and Lawrence (near Fourth and Catherine).
When I next wrote about it, this time in The Philadelphia Tribune one year ago, additional scholarly research had increased that number to 5,000. And, as recently as just a few days ago, updated scholarly research expanded that number to approximately 8,000 or more! And, still there is no municipal memorial, marker, or signage. In other words, there’s nothing but nearly 150 years of racist defilement.
Before I express my righteous indignation and demand immediate city action, allow me to provide some historical background. The Sixth and Lombard site of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was bought by Bishop Richard Allen and other trustees in 1791 after which they began services there three years later.
In 1810, they purchased land at Queen and Lawrence and used it until 1864 as a private cemetery, known as Bethel Burying Ground. They were compelled to do so because Philadelphia’s public cemeteries would not accept Blacks.
Things went well until the trustees encountered some financial difficulties and had to take bold steps to avoid church foreclosure.
Accordingly, in 1869, they allowed unused portions of the cemetery grounds to be rented in a 10-year lease for wagon storage to Barnabas Bartol, a white man who operated a sugar refinery. There was explicit language in the lease mandating that those “who are interred … are to be allowed to remain there undisturbed.”
Despite that, as reported by a local newspaper in 1872, the refinery (along with other white businesses) repeatedly “dumps rubbish … over the graves.” This caused the cemetery to deteriorate to such an extent that it could no longer operate as intended.
Accordingly, it was sold in 1889 to the white city government that ignored it for a few more years before transforming it into a city garden in 1901 and attaching a city playground around seven years later. The Department of Recreation took official responsibility of the park in 1910.
The remains of approximately 8,000 or more Blacks are still there. Previously included there was Richard Allen’s wife, namely abolitionist Sarah Bass Allen. The family of Octavius Catto’s fiancé, renowned civil rights pioneer Caroline LaCount, is buried there.
And, so is Ignatius Beck. He was a free Black man who, like Solomon Northup of “Twelve Years a Slave,” was tricked, forced, and sold into slavery. While enslaved, he helped construct the U.S. Capitol in 1789 and later became the chairman of the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia, which spearheaded boycotts against anything made by slave labor.
Black Civil War veterans are also buried there. The names and brief biographies of 2,485 of these Black human beings are known, and research is ongoing concerning the others. Those currently known include, alphabetically, Elizabeth Abbot who died of “tuberculosis” at age 22 in 1825 through Ann Zittman who died of “lung disease” at age 32 in 1848. Chronologically, in terms of birth, they include Parker, whose first name and gender were not recorded, who was “stillborn” in 1812 through Phillis Garnet who died at 113 of “old age” in 1823.
I would love to take credit for this scholarly research. But I can’t, so I won’t. The credit goes to local historian Terry Buckalew. He uncovered this historic treasure while investigating the life of civil/voting rights giant Octavius Catto. You can read all of Mr. Buckalew’s research about the site at bethelburyinggroundproject.com.
Just a few days ago following a meeting that he, former Managing Director and U.S. Colored Troops/Buffalo Soldier reenactor Joe Certaine- who is the founder of Friends of Bethel Burying Ground (FBBG)- and Congressman Bob Brady’s Communications Director Karen Warrington, along with yours truly, had with the Mayor’s top-level officials, Buckalew said the following: “I believe the Kenney administration has taken a major step forward by agreeing to an impact engineering study to determine if the dilapidated cinder block building located over thousands of African-American graves is a potential threat to the fragile human remains only inches below the building’s foundation. Bethel Burying Ground has been recognized by city, state, and federal agencies as a national treasure and needs the protection of the citizens of Philadelphia who are the owners of the property. The building in question appears to be settling into precious soil below and could cause catastrophic damage, which is why the engineering study must be quickly undertaken.”
I agree with Mr. Buckalew regarding Mayor Jim Kenney who, by the way, has done more in just a few months to try to resolve this major problem than the former mayor did in over two years. But much more must be done and must be done quicker. And this is not only because of the probable structural damage but also because underground public utilities have already damaged this site. Pollution-filled sewage pipes run through it. And public toilets are situated directly above some of the bodies, which mean people in that Southwark community are literally pissing on our ancestors’ graves.
We will not continue to allow that or any other such disrespect. That is why you, your family, your relatives, your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, and especially your pastors (who should announce this to their congregations) must call Mayor Kenney’s office and thank him for what he’s already done but encourage him to do more and to move quickly to officially memorialize the site as “undisturbed and historic hallowed ground.”
At least 500 persons should call the mayor at (215) 686-2181 within the next 30 days. Immediately after you call him, please call Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) at (215) 552-8751 and leave a message with your name and number so ATAC can provide the FBBG with a record before FBBG representatives meet with him later next month.
By the way, the park’s name, Weccacoe, is a Lenape word meaning “peaceful place.” But if the city doesn’t do the right thing, it’s gonna be hounded by the activists and haunted by the ancestors as we together begin publicly chanting, “No justice, no peace!”
The words from David Walker’s Appeal, written in 1829, along with the words of Christopher James Perry Sr., founder of the Tribune in 1884, are the inspiration for my weekly “Freedom’s Journal” columns. In order to honor that pivotal nationalist abolitionist and that pioneering newspaper giant, as well as to inspire today’s Tribune readers, each column ends with Walker and Perry’s combined quote- along with my inserted voice- as follows: I ask all Blacks “to procure a copy of this… (weekly column) for it is designed… particularly for them” so they can “make progress… against (racist) injustice.”