Monday, June 20, 2016

God’s Quarter-Acre

Monday, June 20, 2016, is the first day of summer. Just in time for summer vacation, Weccacoe Playground in Philadelphia will be closed. Closed until August, 2016, at least.

“Located on the 400 block of Catharine Street [Queen Village neighborhood], Weccacoe Playground is a central spot for recreation, fun, and greenery. Weccacoe Playground is one of the few playgrounds in Philadelphia with a full-size, professional tennis court. Anyone is welcome to play, and each summer there is a youth tennis league.  The playground also houses the recreation center, which serves as QVNA’s [Queen Village Neighbors Association] office and a neighborhood meeting place for community activities, children’s events, and other meetings. The Friends of Weccacoe Playground is QVNA committee of volunteers who help make the playground a clean, green, and safe place for kids and adults.” -

Why am I writing about a playground on my Cemetery Traveler blog? Because this playground – or more specifically – it’s tennis courts and recreation center, were built over a graveyard.

Grave excavations in front of Weccacoe Rec Center, 2013 (Ref.)

“Just don't tell the kids..."

 “Just don't tell the kids: Renovations for Weccacoe Playground on the 400 block of Catharine Street will forge ahead, despite the site recently being named to the National Register of Historic Places. Why the nod? It was a 19-century African-American burial ground, and about 5,000 people lie buried beneath it.” - (from the article, Weccacoe Playground Renovations to Continue on Top of Historic Burial Ground.) 

May 2016 photo showing tennis courts at left.

“Under this playground is a burial ground of as many as 5,000 people from the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1800′s. The location has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places." - See more at:

The city was called on its attempt to dig up the grounds for a playground renovation project in 2013 (see my prior blog, The Bones Beneath Us). Heated debates arose between various parties, including Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, which originally owned the cemetery. According to the 2013 article, Historic African American cemetery in Queen Village larger than thought: “The cemetery, which had languished in obscurity for a century, was put on the city register of historic places in June [2013], and the archaeology study was ordered in advance of renovations to the now-protected site. (All construction related to a protected historic property must be approved by the city historical commission.)" 

Banner currently on the fence of the tennis court on Queen Street

"…construction will be allowed on the portion of the playground that does not touch the bones." - (from the article, Weccacoe Playground Renovations to Continue on Top of Historic Burial Ground.)

I noticed that the playground construction had begun March 28, 2016 (Ref.), with barriers around the tennis courts and Rec center. This apparently is to protect the known borders of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground, which was in existence between 1810 –1864. The fact that a cemetery itself would have a birth and death date is ironic! A very interesting read is the 2013 Archaeological Investigations of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground (available at this link), prepared for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (not the HISTORICAL society as one might expect).

Bethel Burying Ground now joins a handful of city graveyards - Christ Church Burial Ground, Old Swedes' Church Cemetery, Mikveh Israel Cemetery, the Woodlands - on the national register," states the 2016 article, Bethel Burying Ground, a National Historic Site, faces neglect, damage.

God’s Quarter-Acre

"The graveyard, beneath about a third of the three-quarters-of-an-acre playground in the 400 block of Queen Street, is owned by the city. More than 5,000 18th- and 19th-century African Americans are buried there, members of the city's and nation's "founding generation," in the words of Richard S. Newman, director of the Library Company of Philadelphia and author of Freedom's Prophet, a highly regarded biography of Richard Allen." - from the article,
Bethel Burying Ground, a National Historic Site, faces neglect, damage

This whole situation has to be somewhat embarrassing for the wealthy whites who occupy most of this neighborhood - their beloved playground and Rec center were built over an abandoned black cemetery. Also, a bit embarrassing to the City of Philadelphia, which owns the land, to have approved of the renovations in the first place. Compromises were reached, however, and the city has stated that “…construction will be allowed on the portion of the playground that does not touch the bones” (Ref.).

What a magnanimous statement THAT is! As you can see in the photo below, the barricades and fencing have been erected to limit the construction to the area of the playground that has no bodies beneath it. The Rec center, it turns out, has bathrooms that drain through the quarter-acre burial ground. There are calls to remove them. After all is said and done, compromise may be reached to have both the burial ground and the playground coexist.

April 2016 photo of Weccacoe - note green-roofed Rec center in rear, beyond barricade

From the Feb. 1, 2016 CBSPhilly article, Burial Ground Beneath Queen Village Playground Named To National Register Of Historic Places:

"Attorney Michael Coard, founder of Avenging Our Ancestors, says he opposes a playground “being on top of or even next to this hallowed ground. Also the toilets above these historic bodies must be removed.”

The Conclusion?
Not at all sure what that will be. You would think after all the renovations, the city would at least erect an historical marker. I noted that the playground map currently on the fence of the Weccacoe Playground makes no mention of the Mother Bethel Burial Ground, which lies beneath it. All-in-all, this is another example of the living trying to find ways to live with their dead.

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