There are two jungle gyms, a row of swings and slides — what you’d expect to see on a typical playground. Even the amenities of a full sized tennis court and recreation center do not overshadow the discoveries of thousands of African Americans buried beneath South Philadelphia’s Weccacoe Playground.
Six years ago, while working as a historical consultant on a film project, Terry Buckalew came across the mentioning of a cemetery named Bethel Burial Grounds (BBG). Unfamiliar with the site, the historian later discovered that these grounds were once owned by Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
After a tedious process of identifying approximately 1,500 people who had been buried at the grounds, Buckalew hauled his research and contacted Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel, community groups and city council about his findings.
As a property of the City of Philadelphia, Weccacoe Playground is located at 400 Catharine Street and sits on the burial site. Slated under the Green2015 initiative, a city-wide greening project, renovations to the playground were recently drawn up. Families will look forward to additional trees, benches, a water structure for children and new surfaces for the tennis court and other play areas. These renovations need access to water, gas and electric lines.
“You have a historic burial ground that was preserved by actually covering it over,” Buckalew explained. “It’s sealed. They could have built houses here. Now, if they built houses here, they would have dug the foundation and all the remains would have been dug up and destroyed.”
Senior archaeologist for URS corporation, Douglas Mooney, directed the excavation earlier this year to confirm Buckalew’s research that the bodies were not removed. Using ground-penetrating radar in a test pit, several anomalies — possible individual burial areas — were found. Traces of decayed coffin wood were identified as well.
“We didn’t actually see the coffin,” Buckalew said. “They stopped several inches above the coffin. It was a very emotional and moving experience. I was right here with them when they did that. This is meaningful and has social impact, but it was a solemn occasion.”
Mooney presented the Phase I findings to Mother Bethel, and later did a public presentation explaining the discoveries at Weccacoe.
“It was unfamiliar to me,” Tyler said. “I began to ask around with some of the older members and some of the former pastors. They did know that Weccacoe Park had been at one time Mother Bethel’s burial ground, but acknowledged that there had never been anything done to mark or commemorate the location. As a result, the story just faded from public memory.
“But it did come as a big surprise especially since I know the playground very well. My kids have played there before.”
The second phase of the archeological surveying finished over a five-day period this past week. Four trenches were dug during the excavation to determine how far BBG extended and how deep were coffins buried. The remains of 30 people and one headstone belonging to a woman named Amelia Brown, 26, were found. The headstone is being preserved and returned to Mother Bethel.
“Sadly, her name is not on that list,” Tyler said. “There are persons whose last name is Brown that are on the list that we have as the persons identified as being buried there, but hers is not one of the Brown’s listed, and we don’t have a record of her being a member of the congregation. It’s really a mystery right now.”
“It’s a very exciting process to watch the archeological dig,” Carla Puppin, executive director of Queens Village Neighborhood Association (QVNA) said as she described her experience looking at the site. “We saw the original edges of the wall of the cemetery.”
In 1810, the property was purchased by Rev. Richard Allen and Trustees of Mother Bethel for $1, 600. During this time, Blacks could not be buried with whites.
On his blog, preciousdust.blogspot.com, Buckalew gives a detailed chronological timeline of BBG’s history. In doing so, he describes the racial pressures felt by the African-American community. From riots and torching of property, Blacks of this neighborhood were subjected to lives of horror and vulnerability. Several diseases inhabited the area as well, resulting in many deaths.
“The individuals buried here were the pioneers,” Buckalew said. “During apartheid, they were a colony — not only survived — but persevered. These people won’t have plagues.
“Talk about history repeating itself, I read an interview that an African-American man who was just lamenting, ‘I can’t protect my children.’ And then the whole thing with Trayvon. How do you protect your child?”
Buckalew found that about one-third the bodies buried at BBG were of children two-years-old and younger.
Despite the racial tension, the people buried at BBG were entrepreneurs and skilled in trades. Buckalew called them “the soldiers.”
Through tedious investigation, he identified 1,500 people by looking at cemetery returns, also known as death certificates. He found names, ages and dates of death. For some he uncovered their occupations and where they lived.
So if the property was once owned by Mother Bethel AME Church, how could the sacred grounds of the final resting place of thousands disappear?
According to historical pamphlets found by Buckalew, Rev. Allen would offer funeral fund loans to working poor Blacks and those seeking assistance to bury loved ones. Not all buried were members of the church. This lending practice and paying for the church mortgage could have contributed to the church’s later financial difficulties.
The grounds were soon rented for $500 per month in 1869 to be used for the storage of wagons and other equipment. At this point, BBG had dilapidated and not been kept.
Therefore, in 1889, Mother Bethel sold the grounds to the City of Philadelphia for $10,000. These appropriations went toward repaving the area, even though it was reported that the burial site had existed. The site is then renamed Weccacoe Park.
Now owned by the city, the site became a school garden in the early 1900s — similar to the urban farming in today’s neighborhoods. Youth and community members cultivated the land. A playground was also created and used by the children of the neighborhood.
By the 1920s, a neighborhood association was established. Presently, Friends of Weccacoe Playground — a committee of QVNA — volunteers maintain the playground grounds.
Jeff Hornstein, president of QVNA, has lived in this community for eight years. He said he was surprised about the archeological discoveries, his neighbors — not so much.
“I think it adds another layer to a very rich history in the neighborhood,” Hornstein said. “I think it’s really important that we commemorate this very important site, but we’re going to follow Mother Bethel’s lead on this because it used to be their graveyard.”
Through the efforts of QVNA, Friends of Weccacoe and Councilman Mark Squilla — who worked with the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and the Philadelphia Water Department to secured $535,000 to fund the renovations at the playground — support the site renovations.
Hornstein anticipates Phase II of the archeological surveying will be released around mid August.
“It’s my understanding that it’s really not going to impact the project at all,” Hornstein said. “We saw the Phase One archeological study. It was mainly to verify the historical boundaries of the burial ground. The renovation is mostly a surface [one] except a few boundary areas.”
The sentiments expressed by both Tyler and Hornstein were to honor those buried with more than a plague. For Tyler, he wants to protect BBG from any intrusion, commemorate those buried and decipher the history uncovered.”
“This burial ground coming back to the forefront gives us an opportunity to do what is rare, and that is a chance to redo history,” Tyler said. “Most times in life you don’t get a chance to do something to correct something that you missed the first time.
“We want to interpret the site, so that this burial ground becomes an important story in the life — not just of Mother Bethel and Philadelphia — but really it’s an American story. There’s a powerful story about the way this country struggled with race in the early 1800s, and how we’re still struggling with race in the 21st century.”