For generations, children would play kickball, hide-and-seek and jump rope on a stretch of concrete at Weccacoe Playground, unaware the remains of 5,000 Black Philadelphians were buried 18 inches beneath their feet. Now, a portion of that playground will become a memorial to the dead.

Last month, the city announced plans to develop a section of the playground into the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site.

“This is an opportunity to fix something that fell off of our radar, and it’s a teachable moment for these young children,” said Leslie Patterson-Tyler, whose husband, the Rev. Mark Tyler, is pastor of Mother Bethel AME. Her two daughters learned to swing at the playground when they lived in the neighborhood, she said. “It’s already a gathering place, so let’s continue to gather in this place and talk about what was.”

In the 1800s, no African-Americans could be buried in cemeteries within Philadelphia’s city limits. The dead could be buried at potter’s fields like Washington Square, but the city forbade any tombstones to mark those interred there.

So when Richard Allen, a freed slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, sought to buy land for a burial ground for his church members in 1810, he had to search outside the city’s boundaries. The Mother Bethel Burying Ground was established that year on parcel of land a half-mile south of the church, in what was then called Southwark, a former 17th century Swedish settlement in an area the Lenape tribe referred to as “Weccacoe.”

After burials ceased in 1864, the graveyard fell into disrepair. The church sold the site to the city in 1889, and it was developed into a park.

As congregants with connections to the burial ground passed away, so did the memories of its existence. The park transformed into a playground called Weccacoe, and the neighborhood transformed into the Queen Village section of the city.

In 2008, historian Terry Buckalew doing research for a documentary on 19th-century Black activist Octavius Catto when he stumbled onto references to Bethel Burying Ground. He knew of the church, but couldn’t place the burial ground.

“It basically had been lost to history,” he said.

He began collecting data on those buried there and writing biographies in an online project.

“I wanted people to be able to relate to who’s there. Many are former slaves, first-generation free Blacks. I wanted to be able to say, ‘Here is a woman who was a single mom and ran her own business,’” he said.

Around 2011 he said he learned about a plan to renovate the playground. Buckalew reached out to the city, to the Queen Village Neighborhood Association and to Mother Bethel Church about his findings.

Archaeologists in 2013 determined at least 5,000 people were interred there, just 18 inches below the surface, Buckalew said. It’s likely many more are there, as the remains appeared to be stacked in three layers.

A committee and coalition were formed and after years of meetings, plans were hashed out to create a memorial at the site. A well-used community center will be dismantled to make way for the memorial.

“Like any neighborhood, we lament the loss of an accessible meeting space, but in this case it’s the loss of a space for all the right reasons,” said Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queen Village Neighborhood Association.

She said she’s been impressed with how inclusive the process has been, and is focused on keeping the public as involved as possible.

Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer, said they are more focused on getting the memorial right than moving quickly. The city will conduct community outreach to get input on what it should look like.

“At the end will be a memorial the whole city can be proud of,” she said.

Stephanie Gilbert’s family has been in Philadelphia since the 1600s. Her 4th great-grandfather was Clayton Durham, who worked with Allen in founding the AME church, and through genealogy research learned that his son James Durham was buried at Bethel, as well as other relatives.

She hopes the memorial will give visitors a better sense of Philadelphia’s free Black community.

“They were part of very different kind of liberation movement,” she said. “They were fighting for careers and access to things they could afford but were kept out of.”

For Rev. Tyler, the memorial should be something that invites children in, that prompts thought-provoking questions so they ask their parents, “Why is this here?”

“I think that would be a wonderful way to honor the ancestors who are buried there,” he said. “To help these children write a new and better American story.” — (AP)

(5) comments

Geraldine Lightfoot

What an inspiring undertaking. I am Canadian and was raised in the A.M.E. church here in Canada. My parents were stalwarts of our church. I am looking forward to seeing the memorial when it is finished.

Apostle Ricci J. Hausley Sr


Apostle Ricci J. Hausley Sr.

In 2014 at the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Queen Lane projects we ran into the same exact thing, for the 16 story PHA housing project was erected on a historic 1755 graveyard. Since that time we were able to work through changing teh plans so as to not build on the original graveyard, and to permit new housing to be built and dedicated on the original footprint where housing once stood. An extensive archelogical study was done, deep ground penetrating radar was conducted, and the original graveyard today is a large grassed area with a historic marker as the Germantown African Burial Grounds. Please look into what wasw done with this site for it predates the founding of the country. A lot of stakeholdersw were involved in this site and today it stands as a testament of our community coming together.

Jessica Jackson

I have something to share with you!!! There is a great joy in my heart which I want to share with everyone. My name is Jessica Jackson, from united States. I had a misunderstanding with my lover last year which led us to break up and he never wanted to hear my voice again. He saw a beautiful woman which he find more prettier than me, but as time went on I met god Dr Purity He is a great spell caster. I contacted him through his email and
explained everything to him. He said that I shouldn't worry, that my lover will come back to me on his knees begging for forgiveness before 24 hours. My greatest joy now is that he actually came back to me and fell on
his knees begging for forgiveness, and today we are happy and he also cured
my Sister's breast cancer. Do you have any problem? worry no more because Dr Purity can provide lasting spell solution to any problems:email him or call him +2348070980389 or add him on whats- app +2348070980389

(1)If you want your ex back.

(2)You want to be promoted in your office.

(3)If you want to be cured of HIV, Cancers and other diseases.

(4)You want to be rich.

(5)You want your husband/wife to be yours forever.

(6)Healing of cancer, Hiv/Aids, Herpes and all kinds of sickness.

(7)If you went to get pregnant.

Guest Kat

My names are Kate Frank, Am here to share a testimony on how DR Odinani Owelle helped me. After 1/5 year relationship with my boyfriend, he changed suddenly and stopped contacting me regularly, he would come up with excuses of not seeing me all the time. He stopped answering my calls and my sms and he stopped seeing me regularly. I then started catching him with different girls several times but every time he would say that he love me and that he needed some time to think about our relationship. But cannot stop thinking about him so i decided to go online and i saw so many good talk about this spell caster called DR Odinani Owelle and i contact him and explain my problems to him. He cast a love spell for me which i use and after 24 hours, my boyfriend came back to me and started contacting me regularly and we moved in together after a few months and he was more open to me than before and he started spending more time with me than his friends. We eventually got married and we now have been married happily for 3 years with a son. Ever since DR Odinani Owelle helped me, my partner is very stable, faithful and closer to me than before.You can also contact this spell caster and get your relationship fix Email:..(

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.