As Mother Bethel AME Church pastor Mark Kelly Tyler and nearly 40 members of the congregation retraced the half dozen or so block-walk between the church and the the Bethel Burying Ground on Tuesday, the pastor’s mind wandered back two centuries to the days when congregants actually buried their loved ones there.
“It’s important for us to put ourselves back into the frame of mind of the early members,” Tyler said. “I envisioned Richard Allen (the founder of the church) holding the hands of widows, of children.
“And as we got closer to the burial ground I could imagine the intensity of people weeping. So it’s good to honor the ancestors that way,” he added.
Tyler and the church members arrived about 1 p.m. About an hour later, a crowd of about several hundred, including Mayor Jim Kenney and City Councilman Mark Squilla, witnessed the unveiling of an official state historical marker commemorating the grave site.
“We have to understand that unless we know all of our stories and respect all of our contributions, unless we understand that Black people were a part of this country for 400 years, we are never going to understand our own significance,” Kenney said of the grave site, where more than 5,000 people are buried.
“They contributed every single day under horrible circumstances. What we want to do is to honor them in the proper way.”
The marker stands on the southwest corner of the Weccacoe Playground in the Southwark section of the city.
Tennis courts, a recreation center and play area now dot the playground, which is bordered by Catherine Street to the north, Queen Street to the south, Leithgow Street to the east and Lawrence Street to the west.
However, for decades, beginning in 1810 when Mother Bethel purchased the property until burials ceased in 1864, it was one of the top private interment locations for Black Philadelphians, who, for years, were not permitted to be buried in private graveyards alongside whites.
The site became a playground after the city bought it in 1889. The city named the playground Weccacoe, which is a Lenni Lenape word that means “Pleasant Place.”
A local historian discovered that the site was a burial ground in 2006 when he was working on a documentary about Octavius Catto. The Philadelphia Historical Commission acknowledged the site in 2013.
Documents show that prominent Black Philadelphians are buried at the site. They include Sarah Bass Allen, Stephen Laws, Rev. John Boggs and James Champion.
Stephanie Gilbert has traced her family’s history in the city to the 17th century. Her fourth great-grandfather, Clayton Durham, worked alongside Allen in establishing the AME church. Through genealogical research, she discovered that Durham and other family members were buried at Bethel’s cemetery.
After confirming this with Tyler, Gilbert became involved as a member of the the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Committee to help acquire a marker for the site.
“This is great,” she said. “It’s a playground, not a construction site. So they were not tearing up the grounds. The dead are at peace and they will be able to remain that way. And at the same time they will be honored.”
Future plans call for the placement of a memorial structure in about a year.