Calling my blog “The Cemetery Traveler” implies that I travel to cemeteries all over the place (which I do, but that’s beside the point). As you’ll see as you read on, you could be standing on an old cemetery just about anywhere you happen to be in any major American city, and not realize it. Why is this? Well, it’s a familiar story – cemetery gets plowed over and a playground or ballpark is built over it. Happened in most major cities in the U.S. as urban property values skyrocketed and graveyards were moved, or sometimes even forced further underground. Rarely is anything requiring a substantial foundation built on such a site - you know, something that requires deep digging. You don’t have to wonder too long why that is.
Where I live in Philadelphia, there seems to be some accidental unearthing of bodies every few years. Some of these instances are covered in the book, Digging in the City of Brotherly Love: Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology (by Rebecca Yamin). This past summer, such an occurrence struck a bit too close to home.
Weccacoe Playground is a few blocks from where I live in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. My daughter likes playing there on the swings, slides, etc. During one attempted Saturday afternoon visit there this past summer I was surprised to find it closed, for “archeology work.” A quick check with the all-knowing Internet and I come to find out that someone found a burial ground beneath it. During some test digging prior to a playground renovation project, it was discovered that reportedly, more than five THOUSAND 18th and 19th century African Americans lie buried just below the surface of the playground and tennis court – a mere quarter-acre of land.
|Doug Mooney, senior archaeologist from URS (right), explaining the dig at Queen Village's Weccacoe Playground to visitors in July. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer, Philly.com)|
|Grave excavation near tennis court|
Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought (Philly.com):
“The remains of at least 5,000 18th- and 19th-century African Americans lie less than two feet beneath the asphalt and tennis court at Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village, a far greater number than previously believed.
And there could be more, stacked in layers in the old Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church burial ground, according to an extensive archaeological study conducted at the city's behest and just released.
The magnitude of the estimated number of burials - a village of the dead with a population comparable to all of Queen Village - has stunned virtually all observers.
The Mother Bethel ground occupies about a quarter-acre at the southwest corner of the three-quarter-acre playground at Queen and Lawrence Streets.”
While there is some disagreement between the church and historian Terry Buckalew about how he went about the initial research into the Mother Bethel cemetery, all parties agree that the graves will be untouched unless absolutely necessary. "The earlier burials [at Bethel] were the first generation of free blacks, and most or many were not slaves," said Buckalew. "Individuals who were the leaders [of the nascent African American community] were buried there" (ref.). The cemetery was put on the city register of historic places in June, 2013, and there is talk of installing a memorial plaque.
So will I continue taking my daughter to play on the swings at Weccacoe Playground? Yes, but with a profound new appreciation and respect for those below ground. Am I wrong? Should more be done? Should the perimeter of the burial ground be delineated in some way? Not sure, but at least people – both black and white – are talking. This is a good sign that our priorities are being called into question. We the people made decisions in the past to plow over old cemeteries. Frankly, I don’t believe that we, for the most part, cared that Lafayette Cemetery, for instance, was condemned and turned into a ballpark. Those days are over, hopefully. I hope that we, the people, have a newly dawning respect for our ancestry, our history, ourselves. It’s not fair to criticize the sins of the past, because the sinners were us.
I am encouraged by such events as the Weccacoe dig and this recent situation in New York: “Changing of the Guard? City Island Residents Consider a Park in Nearby Potter’s Field.” Our sensibilities are changing to the degree that it is no longer a fait accompli that our memories be covered with asphalt. The debate is over whether New York’s Hart Island’s use as a cemetery should be preserved or if it should be turned into a park. The more media attention such a situation receives, the more likely we'll look ourselves in the mirror and make the right decision.
References and Further Reading:
Watch the video: “Weccacoe Playground Burial Ground Site Visit”
Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought
Future Of Queen Village Playground Includes Look At Buried Black History
Friends of Bethel Burying Ground
Weccacoe Playground preserves history
Thousands Buried Beneath Philly Playground
Queen Village Neighbors Association