Stephan Salisbury, CULTURE WRITER, Philadelphia Inquirer
POSTED: Monday, February 1, 2016, 1:07 AM
The lost 19th-century graveyard established by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and utilized heavily by the city’s black community until shortly after the Civil War, has been named a National Historic Site by the federal government.
The existence of the graveyard had been forgotten until rediscovered by a historian a few years ago and designated a city landmark in 2013.
Bethel Burying Ground now joins a handful of city graveyards – Christ Church Burial Ground, Old Swedes’ Church Cemetery, Mikveh Israel Cemetery, the Woodlands – on the national register.
Most important, the designation earlier this month puts the graveyard in the national spotlight at a time when the Queen Village site, beneath Weccacoe Playground, remains contested ground, caught between conflicting interests of neighbors, historians, the black community, church officials, and an up-to-now uncommunicative and lethargic city bureaucracy.
Even as national importance has been certified, some community leaders and preservationists are alarmed by reports that the city is about to begin construction on the playground, possibly imperiling the historical integrity of the burial ground.
The graveyard, beneath about a third of the three-quarters-of-an-acre playground in the 400 block of Queen Street, is owned by the city. More than 5,000 18th- and 19th-century African Americans are buried there, members of the city’s and nation’s “founding generation,” in the words of Richard S. Newman, director of the Library Company of Philadelphia and author of Freedom’s Prophet, a highly regarded biography of Richard Allen.
The city had agreed to renovate Weccacoe before the burial ground was rediscovered through the research of independent historian Terry Buckalew.
Officials of the Queen Village Neighbors Association and Councilman Mark Squilla said that they have been recently notified by the city that work on the playground is about to commence.
No renovations have begun, however, and no construction plans have been filed with the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
Seeking to allay concerns, city Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis said Thursday that construction is not imminent.
“Mayor Kenney and I are currently in discussions with various stakeholders regarding the planned renovations at Weccacoe Playground and the development of a memorial at the burial site,” DiBerardinis said in an email. “A construction date has not yet been set for the playground renovations. We look forward to providing more information regarding this important project as those conversations progress.”
Even if construction did begin, officials contended, it would not directly affect the Bethel ground.
Planned work includes “new play equipment, a spray park, new seating and trash receptacles, repairs to the perimeter fence, renovations to the portion of the tennis court not located over the burial ground, and a garden to manage storm water,” according to a December email from Everett Gillison, then-Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff.
A substantial portion of the graveyard lies beneath a Weccacoe tennis court; some graves are little more than a foot from the surface.
Former city Managing Director Joe Certaine, a leader of an ad hoc group, Friends of Bethel Burying Ground, is scheduled along with several others to meet with Mayor Kenney and DiBerardinis on Monday.
Certaine, not happy with the process so far, argues that the city, owner of the site for more than a century, has ceded decision-making to local neighbors and officials at Mother Bethel AME Church, Richard Allen’s home base at Sixth and Lombard Streets. The cemetery “needs to be treated as a taxpayer-owned historic site” belonging to the whole city, he said.
The city has failed to consider the broad historical relevance of Bethel, Certain said.
“Until the public understands the historic value that this site represents to the African American community, nothing positive will be done to protect and preserve it,” he said.
What particularly rankles Certaine and many others is the presence at Weccacoe of a large community building, constructed in the 1920s and expanded in the 1970s. It sits on a concrete pad directly over the heart of the burial ground and is now used as office space by the neighbors association.
Certaine and many others consider the building and its toilets an unseemly desecration of sacred ground.
Michael Coard, attorney and leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, says, “You move the playground. You move the bathroom. You treat it as hallowed ground. That’s just respect. The city is allowing the ancestors to be desecrated.”
But the Rev. Mark Tyler, Mother Bethel pastor, believes that the community center potentially could be part of an interpretive plan informing visitors – and children using the playground – of the significance of the cemetery.
And he points out that demolition of the building poses its own threats to the historic area.
Councilman Squilla and leaders of the neighbors association agree with Tyler, arguing that both playground and burial ground can coexist in close proximity.
“There are plans for the playground, keeping in mind the sanctity of the burial ground,” Squilla said. “There will be meetings determining the next step.”
In the meantime, Buckalew, the historian whose work rediscovered the burial ground and who has now identified about 2,400 people buried there, is concerned with the structural integrity of the community building.
He said that, in the last 18 months, a crack has appeared, running from roofline to the ground and extending out onto the asphalt west of the building. A new roof-to-ground crack was noted last week on the building’s south side.
Buckalew, a retired facilities manager at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the cracks are the result of “settling.” In other words, the graves below are collapsing and the ground is sinking. (Archaeological studies have noted other sinking areas above the cemetery.)
“I’m very concerned about water seeping through the cracks and down into the graves,” said Buckalew.
“We need an engineering study of the whole site.”
Such a study has been requested for nearly three years, but has not been done so far.
“You need an engineering study to proceed safely,” Buckalew said.
(To read stories of those buried at Bethel Burying Ground, many of them children and infants, visit Buckalew’s website devoted to the research: bethelburyinggroundproject.com)