Weccacoe Playground in the Queen Village neighborhood was once the gravesite of nearly 5,000 African Americans.
Community members gathered at Weccacoe Playground last week, solemnly placing carnations and LED candles on the footprint of an erstwhile grave as African drums beat in the distance.
Officially announcing the development of the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial, the scene, led by Mayor Jim Kenney, was the first of many public events intended to offer formal respect to the nearly 5,000 African Americans who were laid to rest at the Queen Village location during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Some two centuries later, a cluster of committees and congregations throughout the city, including the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church Friends of Bethel Burying Ground and Queen Village Neighbors Association, to name a few, worked to resurrect the burial ground, which represents generations of the large African American populations during the 1700s and 1800s.
“We are gathered here today at Weccacoe Playground to recognize the role of the Bethel Burying Ground in Philadelphia and U.S. history. … This site links the African American experience’s role in the birth of our nation,” Kenney told the crowd.
About five years ago, the Philadelphia Historical Commission unanimously voted to designate the site as “historic,” which led to its inclusion on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Around the same time, an archaeological investigation verified the Queen Village gravesite, located at 400 Catherine Street.
Up through 2017, when the city established the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee, the plot of land has experienced a timeline of unfoldings, dating back to 1810 when the property was purchased by Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church — the nation’s first black denomination. Over time, the land was eventually sold to the city and established as Weccacoe Playground in the beginning of the 20th century.
“As I stand here today, with the backdrop being persons who were buried from our congregation, I walked down this morning from Mother Bethel Church remembering I was probably walking in the footsteps of Bishop Allan and Reverend Morris Brown,” said the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. “So, we come today, lifting up their memory.”
In an era when African Americans were traditionally entombed in “Potters Fields,” untended graves set aside for socially marginalized demographics, the Bethel Burying Ground was created as a serene and secure final destination.
Kenney says the official commemoration of the area, which is the resting place of people as young as 4-months-old, not only serves as a respectful gravesite but concurrently sheds light to an aspect of American history that was often omitted from annals.
“I grew up learning about Philadelphia and Pennsylvania history as written by white people. It was all about white, European-based men. Not women. Not people of color. Not native Americans,” he said. “But men from Europe, which was wonderful, but it wasn’t the only story. But, it was the only story that was ever told. So, you didn’t know about these folks, because those pages of history were ripped out systematically from the history books to keep us from being able to respect each others’ contributions to the development of this country.”
Among the thousands of interred people, noteworthy individuals include Ignatius Beck, a young slave who was “rented out” to help build the United States Capitol Building from 1795 to 1801, and Levi Ganges, one of the 118 kidnappees saved by American Navy ship USS Ganges off the coast of Cuba from two slave ships breaching the 1794 Slave Trade Act.
All speakers, including Councilman Derek Green, Councilman Mark Squilla and Kelly Lee, the chief cultural officer of the Office Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, stressed the fruition of this memorial would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of several committees, including input and ideas from members of the community.
They say this is merely the beginning of a series of installations aiming to institute the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial.
“I am just very excited we’re coming together to find a memorial that works for the memory of the people who are buried here and the culture and the history they represent,” said Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queens Village Neighborhood Association. “As well as the current community that lives around it and remains stewards of this general meeting place.”