Monday, February 17, 2014

The Bones Beneath Us

This being Black History Month (February), it seems appropriate to relay this story. My four-year old daughter has enjoyed playing in one of the neighborhood playgrounds for the past few years – Weccacoe, at Fourth Street and Queen Lane (near South Street in Philadelphia). This past summer it was closed for an archeological dig. Turns out the playground and adjacent tennis court were built on an old cemetery – an African-American cemetery.

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,
You can read the news reports and watch the video links at the end of this blog about the “discovery” of this burial ground, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say that it is appalling to me that we used to treat our ancestors with such disrespect. Two-and-a-half feet below the asphalt of the playground lies the surface of the cemetery, which was active from about 1803 until 1864. According to an August 2013 article in the South Philly review (ref), “In the 19th century, African Americans had to be buried outside the city limits unless the cemetery was attached to a church” (prior to 1854, Queen Village was considered a suburb of Philadelphia).

The same article goes on to say that “in 1810, Rev. Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church [which still exists a few block from Weccacoe, at Sixth and Lombard Streets] bought a plot of land outside Philadelphia, south of what is now known as South Street. This cemetery was created for church members and the poor that could not afford a proper burial. Allen’s mission was to provide “burial aid” by giving an appropriate space and loans that were not always paid back. The last burial was in 1864. The church abandoned the cemetery because they had no money. It turned into a community lot in 1889” (ref.).

Apparently, the church sold the land to the city of Philadelphia around 1889. Like so many other area cemeteries, the city built a playground on it. (You know the huge city block park, “Capitolo Playground,” opposite Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s at Ninth and Passyunk? That was Lafayette Cemetery until it was “re-purposed” in 1946. Read more about that here.) During the archeological dig at Weccacoe (which was performed to identify the boundaries of the cemetery prior to renovations), headstones and graves were found.The photo you see here is my daughter playing near an excavated section of the playground a few weeks after the dig had been filled in and sealed up (the same hole you'll see in the video link at the end of this blog). The cemetery's actual boundary was located closer to the tennis courts than the playground (see below).

Grave excavation near tennis court

Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought (

“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