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FunTimes Magazine

The Bethel Burying Ground - Still a way to go

by Karen Warrington

The Bethel Burying Ground now has a Pennsylvania historical marker to help tell the story of Black people buried at the site and to honor the lives of these 18thand 19thcentury African Americans. It's estimated that at least 5,000 Black people are buried under what is now the Philadelphia Department of Recreation's Weccacoe Playground in South Philadelphia at Queen St., between 4thand 5thSts. Today, the Weccacoe Playground is identified as being located in the mostly white Queen Village, but formerly the area was identified as the Southwark community, largely populated by African Americans.

The burial site is believed to be the oldest religiously-affiliated African American burial ground not connected to a "churchyard." Purchased in 1810 by Rev. Richard Allen and church trustees, the site was then outside of Philadelphia city limits, because during this period Blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city. It was an active burial ground until the 1860s, but the cemetery was eventually abandoned. In 1872, Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner, the editor of The Christian Recorder reported that "rubbish, broken barrels and lumber are dumped all over the graves." And, in 1889, Mother Bethel made an agreement to sell the burial space to the City of Philadelphia with no plan to rein-terr the bodies.

Historians have said those buried at the Bethel site represent "the founding generations of this nation's largest and most important African American population in the 18thand 19thcenturies." Among those buried there is Ignatius Beck, an associate of Rev. Allen and chairman of the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia. Born to an enslaved mother on the Beck plantation in Maryland in 1774, he was "rented" as a laborer to build the U.S. Capitol. He assisted in its construction from February, 1795 to May, 1801. The government paid enslaved workers $60 which was collected and kept by the white contractors. Gaining his freedom, he settled in Philadelphia. However, Mr. Beck was re-enslaved in Virginia, but he escaped and returned to Philadelphia.

In 2013, as a result of the research of local historians Sheila Jones and Terry Buckalew about the historic but forgotten burial site, former Philadelphia Managing Director Joe Certaine organized the Friends of Bethel Burying Ground Coalition. Its mission was to advocate for the "protection, preservation and memorialization of the site. The Coalition challenged city government's proposal to renovate the playground with no regard for the possible damage to the graves just below the concrete and asphalt surface. Initially there was a great deal of push back from Queen Village residents, area elected officials and Mother Bethel's leadership. But, the story of the Bethel Burying Ground was gaining public support for a proper memorialization. The site had been certified by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the National Park Service and the Registry of Historic Places. And, in 2016 incoming Mayor Jim Kenney established, at the request of the Bethel Coalition, The Bethel Burying Ground Memorial Committee to be headed up by the City's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The committee includes members of the Bethel Coalition, Mother Bethel representatives, community residents, public artists and key city officials.

While those in attendance at the unveiling of the Pennsylvania Historic marker celebrated the occasion, there remains cautious optimism for the next phase of the project. The 2020 Bethel project calls for the demolition of the building that sits on the grave site and to finally have a fitting memorial constructed in honor of the African American men, women and children buried in in this historic space whose place in history has too long been overlooked and forgotten.

Bethel Coalition advocates remain committed to continue the fight necessary to have this site properly memorialized so that future generations will remember these ancestors and their contributions in spite of incredible odds to the building of Philadelphia and the new nation.