Philly.com reports that the graves of at least 5,000 African Americans, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries, have been discovered at the historic Mother Bethel A.M.E. cemetery in Philadelphia, which now lies a few feet under a playground. This number far exceeds the original estimate, and has astonished community leaders and historians working on the site.
The African American cemetery at the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, which was in use until the 1860’s, is the oldest, and among the largest in the country. Though the cemetery is the first private burial ground for African Americans in Philadelphia, it sank into obscurity for over a century. The ground fell into dilapidation in the 1870s, and the church sold it to the city around the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the cemetery has been a community garden and a playground.
Thanks to the work of historian Terry Buckalew, who accidentally stumbled on a mention of the cemetery while doing research for a documentary film project, an archaeological analysis was scheduled in advance of playground renovations and city enhancements. When the story was original reported in July, Buckalew found almost 1,500 names of those interred in the cemetery. He reached out to the church, the City Council, and neighborhood civic groups urge action to preserve the graves. The cemetery was put on the city register of historic places in June, and the archaeology study was ordered in advance of renovations to the now-protected site. The archaeological report, based on test excavations in July and analysis of city records, has compelled the city to delay scheduled renovation of the cemetery portion of the playground area while civic and religious leaders determine how to address memorialization.
The Mother Bethel ground occupies about a quarter-acre at the southwest corner of the three-quarter-acre playground at Queen and Lawrence Streets. City officials are planning public meetings to see how the playground and the historic cemetery can co-exist. The installation of new playground equipment, a storm-water management system, and other enhancements will probably commence in late spring of 2014.
The Philly.com article lists the following people are interred at the Mother Bethel cemetery:
- James Champion, an original church trustee, was buried there in 1813.
- Stephen Laws, another church founder, succumbed to typhoid in 1814 and joined Champion.
- The Rev. Richard Williams, Mother Bethel’s pastor in the 1840s, and the Rev.
- John Boggs, whose 1848 funeral was attended by 1,000 mourners, are buried there.
- Sarah Bass Allen, abolitionist and wife of Richard Allen, was buried in the cemetery in 1849, although the church maintains she was reinterred in its basement crypt.
- Ignatius Beck, a former slave who helped build the U.S. Capitol building and died in Philadelphia in 1849, is buried at Bethel.
- Musician John Bliss, a member of the renowned Frank Johnson’s band, died in 1848
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