ABOUT THE BETHEL BURYING GROUND
Several years ago while consulting on a Philadelphia history project, I came across the name of a 19th century African American burial ground in the 400 block of Queen Street in a southern neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I did not recognize the name and began researching its history with the expectation of finding a good deal of information, considering that it was purchased in 1810 by the prominent historical figure Reverend Richard Allen and the founding trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The above photograph is of the original 1810 deed that is now held by the National Museum of African American History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution. Please contact them for reproduction information. .
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. My goal in creating this blog is to do something toward correcting those shortfalls. I also discovered that the remains were never removed. The name “Bethel Burying Ground” (BBG) comes from the official death records or “Cemetery Records” for the Philadelphia Department of Health. The official church records for the grounds were destroyed in 1850 for unknown reasons and the name of the cemetery that was used by the church has not survived. There is one recorded account that I have found where a church trustee referred to it as the “Queen Burial Ground."
The burying ground is under a large portion of Weccacoe Playground, a City of Philadelphia facility. The park is scheduled for renovations in the very near future and this could put the human remains in jeopardy. Currently, I have identified the names of 1,378 African American Philadelphians buried on Queen Street. I estimate that my research is only 50% accomplished. I expect that there are approximately 3,000 individuals buried under the park. Of those that I have identified, the average age of death was 40.52 years for the females and 38.35 for the males. Thirty-seven percent of the interred are children 2 years of age or younger.
This blog will also bring to life the history of the neighborhood that contains the graveyard and will highlight some of the people that lived in close proximity to the BBG.
The parcel of ground bordered by the 400 block of Queen Street to the south, the 400 block of Catharine Street to the north, the 800 block of Leithgow Street (formerly Weccacoe Street) to the east and the 800 block of Lawrence Street (formerly Cobb Street) to the west in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia was purchased by Reverend Richard Allen and the Trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on April 28, 1810 for $1,600.
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WHY THIS GRAVEYARD?
There is no doubt of the sacredness of the remains to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Distinguished A.M.E. Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner beautifully characterized those buried at the BBG as:
1) "The men and women who laid the foundation of our Bethel Zion."
2) "The mothers and fathers of our Israel - the co-adjutors of Richard Allen."
3) "The bodies of the Saints."
4) "The dead fathers and mothers of our religion."
In addition, many scholarly books have been written on the subject of A.M.E. founder Reverend Richard Allen and his spiritual and physical journey from enslaved to religious leader. There is no need here to expand on this part of the story since so much about it is publicly available.
But why should those individuals buried at the BBG matter to those not affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church? I believe that the stories of those Philadelphians are unique, worth telling and have the power to influence the present and thereby the future. What we learn from the dead buried at the BBG will help us remember that it is part of being human to reflect on the past and have a vision for the future. That is why history matters. That is why the dead matter.
When they were alive those buried at BBG lived in a violent era and in neighborhoods that often threatened their very existence. Black men were murdered as well as men, women and children beaten and their homes burned to the ground. Racism and bigotry disguised as Jacksonian Democracy attacked the African American community like a virulent disease.
The Philadelphians buried on Queen Street lived and raised families in the epicenter of the most racist and violent Northern city in a country that was going through the most violent era in its history. Yet they rose up through the swill of apartheid, horrific intimidation and imposed antipathy to create a productive and proud colony within their city. It was a society that made a difference in the survival of Philadelphia during its worst time when the city stood firmly on the verge of anarchy and self-destruction.
In resurrecting the stories and preserving the remains of these heroic citizens of Philadelphia, we do ourselves a great service. Their lasting spirit and commitment to their families, community, and country is a story worth recalling by all who want to know what went before them. These stories demonstrate how one person can make a difference when confronted with overwhelming odds. Often we do not stand on the shoulders of giants but of common individuals like ourselves who, because of desperate times, are compelled to do more – much more. On these individuals and the era in which they lived historian Gary B. Nash observed: “This story is partly one of leaders – some inspired, others frail; but it is also a reckoning of ordinary people making choices, searching for solutions to their own problems, and determining the course of their lives as best they could.”
Whether it was the "Flying Horse Riot” of 1834, the "Locust Street Riot” of 1842 or the torching of Pennsylvania Hall, an abolitionist meeting place in 1838 (above), the infamous record stands: "Whoever shall write a history of Philadelphia from the Thirties (1830s) to the era of the Fifties (1850s) will record a popular period of turbulence and outrages so extensive as to now appear almost incredible." (Charles Godfrey Leland)
There is nothing quixotic or romantic about those buried at the BBG, what they had to endure or their fortitude in doing so. As one African American father put his situation during these times: “I cannot protect my children.” Decades before the nation went to civil war, Philadelphians fought their own. The Bethel Burying Ground contains the remains of some of those veterans.
Now known as Weccacoe Playground, the plot was purchased by Reverend Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on April 28, 1810 for $1,600. The Mother Bethel congregation had risen quickly to 1,200 in 1810 from several hundred members in 1805. This necessitated the building of a larger church and the need for more burial space than the very small amount of land available around the church at 6th and Lombard Streets. Also adding to the immediate need for land was the 1795 closing of the “Stranger’s Burial Ground” located in a corner of Washington Square that had long been used as a burying ground for persons of color. Reverend Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel were committed to providing “burial aid” as part of the church’s mission. When congregants lost a family member and could not pay the cost of a funeral, the church offered loans that in numerous cases could not be paid back. In addition, Reverend Allen believed that one of the fundamental services his church could offer was the availability of proper burials, not only for church members of the 5th and 7th wards, but also the working poor and wretchedly destitute that lived in districts of Southwark and Moyamensing.
TIMELINE OF THE BETHEL BURIAL GROUND ON QUEEN STREET
Prior to March
1810: In late February or early March of 1810, the trustees of the Ebenezer Methodist Church of Southward considered the purchase of the Queen Street lot for use as a burial ground. The asking price was $1,700. They instead purchased a lot on Christian Street.
28 April 1810: The parcel of ground bordered by the 400 block of Queen Street to the south, the 400 block of Catharine Street to the north, the 800 block of Leithgow Street (formerly Weccacoe Street) to the east and the 800 block of Lawrence Street (formerly Cobb Street) to the west in the Queen Village section of Philadelphia is purchased by Reverend Richard Allen and the Trustees of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on April 28, 1810 for $1,600.
Rev. Richard Allen
1820: Richard Allen’s “Sword of Truth” pamphlet states that Mother Bethel has spent between $1,200 and $1,500 by “crediting funerals.”
1824: Typhus and Cholera epidemics swept the city and took many of the family members that co-founded Mother Bethel Church and were buried at BBG.
1826: The Union Benevolent Sons of Mother Bethel, a burial assistance charity, is established by Bishop Allen with Reverend Morris Brown as its head.
1835: BBG is included in the city guide “Picture of Philadelphia: Being a complete guide for strangers.” Map coordinates are given for “Bethel Church-Burial Ground.”
1842: Ben Smith, an African American, is arrested by a watchman of Moyamensing for stealing a body from BBG. Mr. Smith was committed to prison.
1850: Bethel burial records “were lost,” according to William Carl Bolivar (below), “in the church Dissension of 1850.”
1 Jan 1869: “Sixty years after the purchase of the ground that was long used by Mother Bethel as a burial ground,” the Trustees of Bethel rented the burial ground out on the first of January, 1869 to Barnabas H. Bartol, a sugar refiner, for 10 years at $500 per year; the lot is to be used for the storage of wagons and drays.
City of Philadelphia Deed book JTO 209, 1869 January 1, p. 30 - :
“The African A.M.E. Church of the City of Philadelphia to Barnabas H. Bartol ... party of 1st part leases to party of 2nd part of a lot on north side of Queen St. between 4th and 5th...." the same having been used and occupied by the parties of the first part hereto commonly known as the Bethel Church for the purposes of burial".... provided "that the remains of the dead who are interred in the said lot of ground are to be allowed to remain there undisturbed.” (Emphasis added)
6 July 1872: An article appears in The Christian Recorder by the editor Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner calling attention to the shameful condition of “the burial ground of Bethel Church.” The article exclaimed “. . . is there no more precious dust” than those who are buried there. These men and women, these “heroes and heroines” are responsible for what Mother Bethel is today.
3 August 1872: Another article appears in The Christian Recorder calling attention to the disgrace of Bethel trustees who have let the “consecrated grounds” of the church’s “Old Burial Ground” on Queen Street crumble. The plot is in gross disrepair and has been rented out for $500 a month to a company that dumps rubbish, old hogsheads, barrels and lumber over the graves.
“There is not a grave stone unbroken and not a grave to be seen – all in confusion and shame.”
6 June 1873: In June of 1873, Barlot (the lessee of the plot) sought to be released from his agreement. The Bethel Trustees, led by Theodore Gould, did so on June 6, 1873 for a cash settlement and the erection of a “good fence” around the lot.
14 Dec 1882: Another article in The Christian Reporter states that the “. . . graveyard of Bethel Church, where sleep the dead fathers and mothers of our Connection” is in a condition “not credible to us as a church.”
20 Feb 1883: Thomas Meehan elected to Common Council of the City of Philadelphia. He was responsible for identifying and lobbying for the establishment of community parks and playgrounds including BBG.
1 April 1885: President of the Board of Trustees for Mother Bethel introduces a motion that a sign be purchased advertising the sale of the Queen Street lot. It is also proposed that an advertisement be placed in the “Ledger.”
5 May 1885: “Resolved that the defective retaining wall of the African A.M.E. Church Burying Ground west of 411 Queen Street . . . are on account of their condition, nuisances prejudicial to public health, and as such the owners or agents thereinof have failed to abate the nuisances in the manner hereinafter specified in accordance with the law, and the rules of the Board; viz.”
1 April 1886: At a Mother Bethel trustees’ meeting “Brother Cornish” asks his fellow trustees how many lots they desire for the reburial of the dead in the “Queen Burying Ground.” It was also suggested that “a large box or boxes” be purchased for the bones and then interred at Olive Cemetery. There is no evidence that this was ever accomplished.
12 April 1886: At a Mother Bethel Corporation meeting, it is requested by George F. Woodson that the retiring trustees and officers remain after the meeting to discuss the erection of a building on the Queen Street lot.
10 Oct 1887: Two nuisance complaints had been filed against the lack of upkeep on the burial ground. Trustee Shadd asks what has been done “to keep the Board of Health from the Queen Street lot.” The president of the board reports that a contract was issued to have a new fence erected and that he had obtained a building permit to have a building erected on the lot.
1 Mar 1889: “Survey notice: Notice is hereby given that the Board of Surveyor has fixed upon Monday, March 2-5, 1889, at 10 a.m. for a hearing of all parties interested in the confirmation of the following plans: a plan of the lines of the Weccacoe Square at the Northeast corner of Queen and Cobb St. in the 3rd Ward."
30 March 1889: William Carl Bolivar, historian and journalist, reports in the Philadelphia Tribune that there is an offer of $10,000 from the city to the Bethel trustees for the burial ground. He recommends accepting the offer “Since it is apparent that the present officials of Bethel cannot or do not keep the grounds in the condition it should be kept.”
He also reports:
The burial ground contains “old, old members of the Church.”
“Bishop Allen set apart a place where they (the dead) could have a
proper kind of Christian burial.
“Twenty-five years have passed since the last burial (1864).
16 April 1889: “An ordinance to appropriate $10,000 to purchase a plot of ground on Queen Street, to be turned into a square to be known as ‘Weccacoe Park,’ was ordered negatively reported.”
21 April 1889: Board of Surveyor has confirmed lines on Weccacoe Square between 4th and 5th on Queen Street.
24 May 1889: The Select Council of the City of Philadelphia transfers $10,000 from the Department of Public Safety for the purchase and improvement of Weccacoe Square, to the department of Public Works for the repaving of Queen Street between 4th and 5th streets.
25 Nov 1889: “An ordinance to amend an ordinance approved December 24, 1888, entitled ‘an ordinance to make an appropriation to the Department of Public Safety for 1889.’ "
"Section 1. The select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia do ordain:
That Item 41, Section 8, of the Ordinance approved December 24, 1888, making an appropriation for 1889 to the Department of Public Safety (Bureau of City Property) , be amended by striking out the words “and improvement” as that the item will read “for the purchase of Weccacoe Square,” ten thousand ($10,000) dollars."
"Approved this fourteenth day of November, A.D. 1889, Edwin H. Fitler, Mayor of Philadelphia.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov 25, 1889, p. 5.
2 Dec 1889: At a specially called meeting of the Mother Bethel Corporation, President D.W. Parvis states the City of Philadelphia has “ordained” that the BBG be used for a park. In addition, it is necessary for the Corporation to vote to empower the trustees to sell the plot for $10,000 and the money is to be directed to be used for the improvement of the 6th and Lombard Streets properties. The Corporation voted unanimously 20-0 in favor of the sale.
11 Dec 1889: The Philadelphia Ledger reports "The Board of Health yesterday amended the rules governing the removal and interment of bodies." (Researcher’s Note: The Minutes of the Board of Health for the City of Philadelphia was examined at the City Archives for their weekly meeting that was held on 10 Dec. 1889. There is no written record of any motion, vote or correspondence in reference to any changes to body removal or interment rules, ordinances or laws.)
19 Dec 1889: The Philadelphia Ledger reports that the trustees of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church received the purchase money for Weccacoe Square. The Square is the first plot actually acquired as a result of the “Small Park” movement.
27 Dec 1889: Sales agreement signed by Mother Bethel trustees selling the BBG for $10,000 to the City of Philadelphia.
5 Feb 1890 President D.W. Parvis reports on behalf of the Real Estate Committee that the “Queen Street lot” has been sold to the City of Philadelphia for $10,000. In addition, Mr. Parvis reports that board member Charles Jenkins had an interview with Wendell P. Bowman, Esquire. Mr. Bowman “points out” that he had “difficulties” in securing the high amount for the burial ground ($10,000). Mr. Bowman’s fee is $1,250. Trustee Parvis states he would be willing to check out with “other lawyers” to ascertain if the fee is excessive. Pastor Shaffer is in attendance. (Minutes of the Bethel Trustees) (Researcher’s note: Mr. Bowman is a white, Republican power broker and lobbyist. He is debatably one of the most influential men in Philadelphia politics at this time.)
20 Aug 1890: “Contractor Filbert is getting Weccacoe Square, Queen St. east of Fifth, ready for Promenaders. The site is that of an abandoned burial ground for colored people.” [Emphasis added]
By all accounts, the condition of the graveyard in 1889 was a rubbish strewn, “hard clay” lot that was used as a trash dump and a space for neighborhood children to play. There were no headstones or other artifacts to indicate that a burial ground existed there, although newspaper accounts indicate it was common knowledge. The lot remained untouched for the next ten years. Even though the Select Council of the City in July of 1896 directed a portion of “the Weccacoe Park to be opened” and awarded a contracted for certain “buildings” to be demolished on the property, it wasn’t until June of 1899 that the city legislature approved the appropriation of $10,000 for the improvement of the property and to repave Queen Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. A contractor was hired to ready “Weccacoe Square” for “promenaders.” It was reported that the property is the site of “an abandoned burial ground for colored people.”
WECCACOE PARK: THE SCHOOL GARDEN MOVEMENT
The “School Garden Movement” was introduced to America by Henry Lincoln Clapp in 1890. He was the head master of the George Putnam Boys’ Grammar School in Boston and a respected educator. The purpose of the program was industrial training and keeping young people occupied, off the streets and out of trouble. The movement did not gain national prominence until 1902 and by 1904 thirty-five cities and towns had established school gardens including Philadelphia which boasted the second largest collection (next to NYC) in the country. Weccacoe Park was the first selected for a garden by the city government.
The Queen Street lot had long been championed by renowned botanist, horticulturalist and longtime city councilman, Thomas Meehan. He chose the lot as an ideal location for a park and lobbied yearly for appropriations and organizational assistance. Weccacoe Square was used as a school garden by local sixth and seventh graders during the growing seasons of 1904 and 1905. After 1905, the program was moved to a lot located at Porter and 5th Streets opposite the Taggard School.Two initial plowings of the lot revealed many layers of ‘broken bricks’ with a bottom surface of “hard clay.” After further nurturing, the Weccacoe garden consisted of 250 single plots 4.5 ft. by 11.5 ft. that were tended by a single student. There were also 18 general plots that were used for instruction and to grow grain. The Weccacoe program engaged 250 students yearly. The immediate effect of engaging the students was that “Gambling and rioting have disappeared from the neighborhood, there have been fewer arrests than before and the college settlement, a block away, reported that ‘never had there been a summer so peaceful.’
Perhaps a longer lasting effect of the movement was the mandatory establishment of an accompanying playground attached to the gardens. The rudimentary playground at Weccacoe took up one third of the entire lot and included softball (there was not enough room for hardball), basketball, ring toss and a punching bag. The average attendance in the playground was a reported average of 100 children a day.
WECCACOE: THE PLAYGROUND
Now established as one of the nicest parks in the vicinity, it hosted 4th of July celebrations, carnivals, pageants and athletic events through the first couple of decades of the 20th century.
Weccacoe Playground was one of nine city playgrounds under the control of a quasi-governmental agency called the Philadelphia Playground Association that relinquished oversight in 1910 to the Bureau of City Properties which in turn transferred responsibility to the Board of Recreation in 1912. The park system created a valuable amount of political patronage jobs that resulted in a tug of war between city agencies.
Statistically speaking, the neighborhood playground was very popular. In 1913 it was reported that the usage at a nearby playground at 7th and Lombard broke down to “64% of the boys and girls were Russian Hebrew, 12% Italian, 15% colored and 9% miscellaneous.” A year later, Weccacoe’s recorded attendance was 66,314 in an 8 month period against 55,350 in 7 months in 1913. The Board of Recreation in their annual report to the City strongly suggested the acquisition of adjacent land to expand the crowded and popular park.As of 1921, there was an active “Weccacoe Playground Association” which appears to be the predecessor of today’s Friends of Weccacoe Playground and the Queen Village Neighborhood Association (QVNA). These volunteers help to maintain the facility as a clean, beautiful and safe respite. Weccacoe Playground is one of the few playgrounds in Philadelphia with a full-size, professional tennis court where anyone can play and each summer there is a youth tennis league. The Playground also houses a recreation center, which serves as QVNA's office and a neighborhood meeting place for community activities, children's events, and other meetings.
The photo above and below are of Weccacoe Playground as it stands today. Renovation plans have been created and funds have been raised toward its renovation. Construction will include excavation for sewer, water and electrical lines and for the planting of trees. For further information on the renovation plans and fundraising efforts go to http://www.weccacoe.org/. (Photograph from renovation plans which are available at website.)