REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON HISTORIC DESIGNATION PHILADELPHIA HISTORICAL COMMISSION WEDNESDAY, 29 MARCH 2013, 9:00 A.M.
405-25 QUEEN STREET Bethel Burying Ground, a.k.a. Weccaccoe Playground Owner: City of Philadelphia Nominator: Terry Buckalew OVERVIEW: This nomination proposes to designate the Bethel Burying Ground, currently the Weccaccoe Playground, at 405-25 Queen Street as historic and list it on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The nomination contends that the property satisfies Criteria for Designation A and I. It was the burial ground associated with Mother Bethel Church and likely contains significant archaeological resources associated with the church and Philadelphia’s early African-American community. This property is located in the National Register Southwark Historic District.
STAFF RECOMMENDATION: The staff recommends that the property at 405-25 Queen Street satisfies Criteria for Designation A and I and should be designated as historic and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. DISCUSSION: Ms. Cote presented an overview of the nomination and the staff recommendation to the Committee on Historic Designation. Terry Buckalew represented the nomination. Mr. Mooney recused himself from the review because his firm has been retained to undertake an archaeological investigation at the site.
The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, read a prepared statement to the Committee: "On behalf of the officers and members of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I write in support of historic designation and protection of the former Bethel Burial Ground. While we support designation and protection, we do not support the manner in which Mr. Terry Buckalew has gone about getting to this point. His approach of working in a vacuum, without the support and cooperation of Mother Bethel, has made an otherwise exciting venture a constant source of frustration. Due to recent media attention that suggested "tension" between the church and Mr. Buckalew, I felt compelled to enter this short statement to clarify Mother Bethel's position. Initially, Mother Bethel and Mr. Buckalew had a very good working relationship. There was open communication and sharing of information. Our concern at Mother Bethel has always been two-fold, as it relates to the Bethel Burial Ground which is now the Weccacoe Playground. Our first concern has been, and continues to be, the protection of the burial ground and any possible remains that may still be interred in it. Since a renewed focus on the burial ground has come to light, we have seen it as a way to broaden and deepen our story of African American self-determination during a time when it was not easy to be free. This is not just an African American story, but this is truly an American story. Our second concern has been to be supportive of the local neighborhood association and the friends of the playground in their effort to modernize what has become a vital part of the Queen Village neighborhood. We have sought to work with them so that they would not lose vital funding to renovate the community center and playground, provided their efforts would in no way compromise the burial ground. There is often tension in these types of projects between history, the present, and the future. For that reason, we organized a unique and dedicated collaboration to ensure that the concerns of all parties would be met. In fact, if it had been successful, it would have been a model for future efforts in Philadelphia. The collaboration consisted of Mother Bethel's Historical Commission (which was represented by Ms. Margaret Jerrido, former Archivist at Temple University's Urban Archives), Mr. Buckalew, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association (QVNA), the Friends of Weccacoe, and our Councilman Mark Squila. Using my connection as a former member of the board of directors for the Preservation Alliance, we sought out the best consultant we could find to help guide this collaboration. We agreed to hire as a consultant a young woman who had extensive knowledge and expertise in working with such projects, having led a similar effort in Virginia. Mother Bethel and QVNA agreed to share the cost of her consulting fee. We had early meetings in which we sought to "get our arms around the story" that Mr. Buckalew was unearthing. There was much anticipation on all sides.
The Rev. Tyler stated that he had an opportunity to read the nomination that morning. He stated that he was concerned that the nomination would encourage unnecessary archeological investigations at the site because the nomination claims that there is archeological potential that could yield information about burial practice. He stated that he did not think the Mother Bethel congregation would be amenable to using the site as a research project. He asked that the Committee postpone the review of the nomination to allow for Mother Bethel to review the nomination, conduct research, do some fact checking, and to understand the full implication of the request. Mr. Laverty asked if any remains were disinterred when the church sold the ground to the City. The Rev. Tyler responded that Mr. Buckalew claims that the remains have not been moved; however, Sarah Allen, Richard Allen’s second wife, was relocated to the church. Mr. Laverty asked if there is any marker or above-ground memorial indicating the burial ground. The Rev. Tyler stated that the church is in collaboration with The Friends of Weccacoe and the Queen Village Neighborhood Association as they rehabilitate the playground site. He stated that the Friends of Weccacoe has presented its plans for the playground to the congregation. He informed the Committee that there was discussion about placing a placard at the center of the playground, but the church has suggested finding another location toward the edge because it is an active playground. He stated that they want to place some sort of commemorative marker in a location where those on walking tours could view it without disturbing the children at play.
Jed Levin of the Philadelphia Archeological Forum stated that the Forum is concerned that this very important site may not be protected, particularly in light of the proposed playground renovations. He stated that the Forum strongly supports the nomination. He also stated that he believes that remains survive at the site. He stated that the Forum would like to see the site designated to provide protection and ensure that the remains are disturbed a little as possible. Mr. Farnham stated that the Committee does not have the authority to grant the Rev. Tyler’s request to table the nomination to allow Mother Bethel to conduct its own research.
The committee may only make recommendations on the merits of the nomination. He stated that the Historical Commission has the authority to table the review of the nomination and would likely grant such a request. Mr. Farnham stated that the staff conducted minimal research when reviewing the nomination, owing to its staffing limitations. He opined that any additional research could be very valuable. He noted that the Historical Commission does not conduct archaeological excavations, but instead designates archaeological sites to ensure that resources remain protected in place. He stated that the best way to protect archeological resources is to leave them undisturbed. Mr. Levin clarified that the Philadelphia Archeological Forum is not seeking archeological excavation at the site, but concurs that the best protection for these resources is to leave them in the ground. He stated that archeological research can inform construction projects, allowing them to avoiding archaeological resources. He stated that artifacts should only be exposed and removed if their disturbance is unavoidable. The Rev. Tyler stated that the plans to renovate the playground appear to be appropriate. He stated that the Friends of Weccacoe and the Queen Village Neighborhood Association are approaching this as if the site is already designated.
Mr. Buckalew stated that he came across the name of the Bethel Burying Ground a number of years ago when working on another project. He stated that five years later he had collected over one thousand names of people who had been buried there. He informed the Committee that he found no evidence that the bodies were ever removed. He stated that he assembled the information and presented his findings to Mother Bethel, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, and the Friends of Weccacoe. He stated that he began the project intending to provide information to genealogical researchers, not to inform a nomination. He stated that he became aware of plans to renovate the playground that involved excavation for water lines and plantings. He stated that he expressed his concerns about the impacts on the Burying Ground to Mother Bethel, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, and the Friends of Weccacoe. He stated that, after attending a meeting a few years ago, he believed that the site would be designated. He later learned that he was mistaken and undertook the nomination himself. He stated that he will be more inclusive as this process moves forward. He stated the he encourages people to utilize his research and provides it online.
Mr. Laverty stated that he found the language describing Jacksonian democracy in the Statement of Significance to be unnecessarily inflammatory. Mr. Dilworth stated that that section of the nomination is not necessarily relevant to the significance of the site. Theresa Stuhlman of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department stated that the Department has initiated a Phase I archaeological investigation at the site and are conferring with both the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. She informed the Committee that the plans for the playground are in the design phase and the Phase I archaeological investigation is intended to help guide the design and construction phases.
COMMITTEE ON HISTORIC DESIGNATION RECOMMENDATION: designated as historic and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Mr. Schaaf seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
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