Historian Terry Buckalew discovered a 19th-century African American cemetery under Weccacoe Playground, 405-25 Queen St., six years ago. He was doing research for a film project and stumbled upon the name of a person who was buried at the unknown Queen Village graveyard.
The Friends of Weccacoe Playground and Queen Village Neighbors Association have been in the process of revamping the site, with plans to contribute new playspaces, flower beds, trees, seating, maintenance and stormwater mitigation by next year.
“We had a group in our neighborhood planning the renovations for five years,” Jeff Hornstein, the civic’s president, said.
When the City became aware of the playground’s historical significance, it limited the future renovations to avoid damaging any of the remains and then closed the recreational spot from July 22 to 26 for an archaeological excavation to confirm the presence of the remains and preserve the burial ground.
The goals of the excavation were to find out how extended the cemetery was and how deep the graves were to ensure that the renovation of the playground would not damage the graves or any other remains, Buckalew said.
The City hired URS Corp., a San-Francisco-based company with a Center City location, to complete the work.
“The excavations we did were able to confirm the cemetery boundaries. We found the walls,” Douglas Mooney, the senior archaeologist at URS Corp., said of the cemetery found to be located in the southwest corner of the playground.
The archaeological team was not hired to remove or unearth the remains — only to collect information on the grounds, Mooney said.
“We uncovered no human remains. All we found was evidence of the cemetery,” Mooney, who added that his team found only the top graves, as burials were stacked on top of one another, said. “The excavations we did were all very shallow. We came to the top of the cemetery, two-and-a-half feet below the surface.”
Buckalew, a Center City resident, who was present during the excavations, said the archaeological team was able to identify between 20 to 30 buried coffins thanks to variations in the dirt.
“The soil color is darker around coffins because at the time, coffins were made of natural materials,” Buckalew said.
The most recent excavation confirmed historical facts related to the cemetery.
“On Thursday afternoon, a headstone was unearthed,” Buckalew said. “It was Amelia Brown, who died April 3, 1818. The gravestone was not on top of her grave. In the past, the cemetery was vandalized.”
In the 19th century, African Americans had to be buried outside the city limits unless the cemetery was attached to a church. Prior to the Consolidation Act of 1854, Queen Village was situated in Southwark, a suburb along the Delaware River.
According to Buckalew’s research, in 1810, Rev. Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church 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. The city went to build a pocket park to reduce crime and give young people a place to play,” Buckalew said.
However, the historian had trouble finding information about the cemetery.
“I came to find that there was very little in the historical record about the graveyard and what was available was scarce, scattered and not user-friendly,” Buckalew wrote on his blog, preciousdust.blogspot.com.
He was amazed that information associated with such a famous African-American church was nowhere to be found. After taking a deeper look in diverse documents about the graveyard, Buckalew found the name of the cemetery, “Bethel Burying Ground,” on the death records for the Philadelphia Department of Health. It also was referred to as “Queen Burial Ground,” but the actual name of the cemetery was never found since the official church records were destroyed in 1850, Buckalew’s blog notes. He was able to identify the names of 1,500 African-American Philadelphians, as well as their ages, causes of death, occupations and addresses, through the archives. Buckalew submitted his research to the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania so people could complete their family trees.
After hearing about the playground’s renovation, Buckalew contacted the City’s Historical Commission and Society Hill’s Mother Bethel to protect the remains. When the neighborhood group became aware of the burial ground, it formed a partnership with the church in order to commemorate the site appropriately.
“We set up some principles — that it would be a place for kids and a place to remember the past,” Hornstein, a resident of the 300 block of Queen Street, said.
All the information gathered on Bethel Burying Ground will be sent to the Historical Commission.
“This was a very interesting and challenging project. We generated a lot of information on the cemetery,” Mooney said.
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