Thousands of African-American Graves Found Beneath Philadelphia Playground

Reviving History and Memory of Our Ancestors

Reviving the History and Memory of the First PeopleDays after archaeologists on Maryland’s eastern shore uncovered what they believe to be the oldest settlement of African-Americans in the United States, another team in Philadelphia unearthed what may be the resting place of nearly 3,000 others under a playground in the city’s Weccecoe Park.

Underneath the swing sets of an urban playground in the Queen Village neighborhood of South Philadelphia are the forgotten remains of an estimated 3,000 African-Americans. Historian Terry Buckalew accidentally stumbled on a mention of the cemetery while researching the 19th century civil rights activist Octavius Catto for a documentary film project. He found a record of family members of Catto’s fiancé buried in something called Bethel Burying Ground, a site he had never heard of.

Buckalew set about gathering as much information as he could, coming up with almost 1,500 names of the interred (and counting), estimating another 1,500 names are still out there. He intended to make all the information publicly accessible on genealogical databases, so African-Americans would be able to track their lineage.

That all changed when the city announced plans to renovate the playground, involving new trees and underground utility lines. Buckalew got in touch with the church, members of the City Council, and neighborhood civic groups to present his research and urge action to preserve the graves.

The team of archaeologists broke the asphalt in four places at Weccecoe Park, digging to a depth of 3 feet to uncover evidence of the 19th century burial site. On Thursday, Douglas Mooney, senior archaeologist for URS Corporation and his colleagues dug up a single white gravestone belonging to 26-year-old. “Amelia Brown, 1819, Aged 26 years” is clearly carved into the white stone, with this epitaph: “Whosoever lives and believeth in me, though we be dead, yet shall we live.”

“There is no grave shaft associated with that stone, it’s just sitting loose in the fill,” said Mooney. “It was knocked over at some point, long ago, when the cemetery was filled in the mid-19th century. It no longer marks an actual grave. It’s just a loose stone in the ground.” Brown, who was likely a member of the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, bought the burial site as a private cemetery in 1810 and used it as such until 1864.

Mother Bethel is the oldest African-American church in the country, researchers say. During the late 18th century, cemeteries within Philadelphia’s city limits would not accept black people, which prompted the congregation to purchase the plot near Fourth and Queen Streets.

Also at the time, the property near Fourth and Queen Streets was not within Philadelphia city limits, so Mother Bethel A.M.E. bought it as a private cemetery in 1810 and used it as such until 1864. Then the property languished, was abandoned, was used as a dump. In 1888, the property was sold to the city to pay for a new church that’s still in use today.

The site lay vacant a few more years until the city developed a playground on it. By then the memory of the dead had faded smooth. Mother Bethel Church left nothing behind to mark the burial site.

“It gives us a chance to really do right,” said Rev. Mark Tyler, the current head of Mother Bethel A.M.E. “Unfortunately, like a lot of churches that start cemeteries — because of the pressing financial issues of keeping a church going — it ran on really hard times. It’s not one of our shining examples that we’re proud of. This gives us a chance to redo history a second time.”

This week’s archaeological dig was to determine what exactly is under the asphalt, and where. Next, all parties will set about devising a plan to properly remember what lies beneath.

Mooney and his team found evidence of many grave shafts, and stone walls representing the border of the cemetery. They have been digging to determine exactly where the cemetery limits are, and how far down. The team stopped digging several feet shy of where actual bones could be. “It should leave a nice buffer that will ensure the cemetery will not be disturbed,” said Mooney.

By: Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


Huffington Post

19 Responses to "Thousands of African-American Graves Found Beneath Philadelphia Playground"

  1. Alan Gold   March 12, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    A very nice story. Note the Portsmouth, NH burial ground memorial for an example of how to get it right.

  2. S   February 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    New history comes to light. However, this is not the oldest Aftican American church. Two compete for that title and formed in the 1770’s.

  3. Tamela   February 24, 2016 at 11:58 am

    I am just happy it was found. I love history, good or bad. It has a story to tell and needs to be heard. This is my America, and those souls laid to rest they are my fellow Americans. I don’t pretend to know all there is about our history of African-Americans. Or have an attitude to sweep it under the rug if it might shed light and truth to atrocities, White Americans did to African-Americans. I also Stand for keeping Black History Month!

  4. ejvisionman   February 23, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    This story made me think of the old hymnal ” Give that old time religion give me that old time religion it’s good enough for me.”

  5. findingthings1   February 22, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks for a very informative article. The City of Alexandria discovered a forgotten Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery in the late 1990s when Woodrow Wilson Bridge was undergoing construction. The Cemetery was dated from 1864 – 1869. The Cemetery had about 1,800 African American people buried there. After the construction was finished on the bridge, the City of Alexandria hired me to locate descendants of the Contraband and Freedmen Cemetery. From 2008 – 2014, I was able to find 160 decease people relatives that did not know that they had kin buried at the Cemetery. You can google the Alexandria Freedmen and Contraband Cemetery to get more information. My name is Char McCargo Bah.

  6. TANGERINE   February 27, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Mr. Albarrs, Can you give some examples of the scrubbing of the history books. I know that in my state our tea party folks are trying to to change the history books so that they don’t represent out country in a negative way. I do not agree with this at all.

  7. albarrs   February 27, 2015 at 4:28 am

    This is yet another sad instances of the extensively liberal left’s revision of American’s history and the U.S.A. This and many other ‘colored’ cemeteries in the North were destroyed, not for commercial or other use of the grounds, but to cover up the fact of the extent of slavery in northern colonies and states in the U.S.A. This, along with the intentional scrubbing of all references to slavery in the schools, libraries and books hid the sad fact for many years and generations but has recently been coming to light. It is time the true history of America and the U.S.A. and her people is told and relearned by our citizens of all nationalities, colors and stature. God bless America and help us learn the truth of our history…

    • betsy   February 24, 2016 at 10:02 am

      What does this have to do with the liberal left? This kind of thing has happened many times over the years.

    • Duende   April 17, 2016 at 5:57 am

      who said the buried was slaves? There were more free Negroes than slaves Negroes. It was mostly white in slavery. The Negroes you all are calling African -a African -American ancestors didn’t come from Africa. They were already here that came from nowhere.

  8. Sandie Murray   February 19, 2015 at 7:45 am

    It’s time to do what should of been done years ago. Bless this land so these people can rest in peace. Make this a historical cemetery and have an apology on the sign.

  9. Rob Sulllivan   February 18, 2015 at 6:07 am

    It should be restored as a reminder of the contributions that black americans made to this country. PERIOD.

  10. stacey chambers   February 17, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Umm, and the City of Philadelphia didn’t know it was there before the playground was placed there? African Americans don’t account for many grave burials nation-wide, given the number that we brought here as slaves. We were strewn across this land burned, decapitated, without limbs and other bodily parts. I wouldn’t be surprised whose remains are underneath all of those mighty fine corporation buildings and public lands. I’m not impressed with an archeological “find” they get government money. All was needed was to ask some black folks, it is common knowledge. How in the heck can someone say that they’ve found this or that, when they were buried there by someone else. Get it right America!

  11. tcarter   February 17, 2015 at 4:52 am

    sad to be covered in the first place. However, remember it was the church itself who sold the cemetery to begin with. Glad it will be made right , now.

  12. LeAnn Timothy Walters   February 16, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    It’s a very sad tragedy and would be so nice to now make it right. These people were important and had families and were an important part of our history as a nation, one that we need to remember and honor.

  13. jen   February 16, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    I am not surprised at anything they do or say it is in their dna they will continue to cover – up things – that will NEVER have peace for what they they did to nations of people – they see AFRICANS as invisible and lack worth – folk of jewish decent have no problem keeping the memories of the holocaust alive – the moment Africans talk about enslavement it is a problem

  14. meisha   February 15, 2015 at 10:23 pm

    That is crazy. I hope ppl can connect to there roots some way.. Would be nice to learn about these ppl.

  15. wow!   February 15, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Nonya how is preserving a grave yard that African Americans purchased a long time ago racists? I hope you’re not white because you sound so redundant right now it’s pitiful and obviously you can’t read! The church fell on hard times that meant that couldn’t keep the church the cemetery going obviously the owner and or caretaker died idiot

  16. nonya   February 15, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    ^^^ your a racist moron.. the church abandoned the property, yet you b want to blame an entire race for the misgivings of one church.. brilliant, just brilliant.. you are what’s wrong with the world today

  17. typ   February 15, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    What white people do and cover up is unbelieveable


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