Before there was Bethel Burying Ground there was only one other place African Americans could be buried within the city’s boundaries, with the exception of a couple small churchyards. That place was South East Square or what we know now as Washington Square. Archeologist Doug Mooney included in the archeological report on BBG the history of that “Hallowed Ground.”
Filling a trench in a Potter’s Field
Hallowed Ground: African American Petitions and Philadelphia’s Potter’s Field
During the late eighteenth century, the free black community in Philadelphia initiated multiple attempts to gain some measure of control over the negro section of the city’s potter’s field cemetery, located in what is now Washington Square. Also known as the “Stranger’s Burying Ground,” the potter’s field was originally set aside in the early 1700s for the interment of those persons viewed as outsiders—who were not members of local churches, were poor, or who otherwise lived at the margins of the established Philadelphia social order. Individuals interred in that ground were often buried in anonymity, sometimes under deplorable conditions, and left to desecration at the uncaring hands of grave robbers and vandals. Fragmentary historical information suggests that ground inside the potter’s field was at some point segregated for the burial of persons of European ancestry, enslaved and free people of African descent, and Catholics. In later years, soldiers who died in British prisons during the Revolution and victims of the 1793–1794 yellow fever epidemics were also interred in this cemetery.
The efforts of leaders in the emergent free black community to lay claim to their section of the potter’s field followed the accepted practices of the day, and involved the submission of a succession of petitions—written requests submitted to the state or city government agencies that had jurisdiction over this ground. The requests made in these documents represented the first civil and political assertions of independence and self-determination by the members of this community, and reflected the great importance attached to this cemetery and the ancestral remains held within it. If they had been successful, these efforts would have established an official black cemetery within the square, and would have forced the dominant white populace of the city to acknowledge the legitimate right of African Americans to bury their dead with dignity in that space, in accordance with their customs. The creation of such a publicly recognized sacred space would also have served as a powerful symbol reinforcing the notion that people of African descent were by that time no longer strangers, but rather a permanent part of Philadelphia’s social and historical fabric. The sequence of African American attempts to wrest control over the black section of the potter’s field are summarized below.
1782: In April 1782, six free black men—James Black, Samuel Saviel, Oronoco Dexter, Cuff Douglas, Aram Prymus, and William Gray—representing “the Black people of the City and Suburbs,” petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council for permission to “fence in the Negroes Burying ground in the Potter’s Field” (Nash 1991: 94). After a four-year delay, this petition was finally brought before the council for consideration in 1786, and was referred to the surveyor general’s office, but was never acted upon. (Note: the original 1782 petition is held in the Pennsylvania State Archives, Records of Pennsylvania’s Revolutionary Governments, Executive Correspondence and Petitions, 1777-1790 [RG # 27.28], item #633.)
1790: On March 13, the leadership of the Free African Society (FAS) responded to a proposal to lease the “Ground called Potter’s Field” and petitioned City Council, asking that the square be rented to them (Douglas 1862: 33–35). The full text of this petition read:
To the worshipful, the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Councilmen, of the City of Philadelphia, in Common Council.
The petition of the Free African Society for the benefit of the sick, in the City of Philadelphia,
That the burial-ground called the Potter’s field, being in part appropriated for the burial of black persons, and chiefly made use of for that purpose, and your petitioners being informed thatthe Common Council are about to let the same, are desirous to have the said burial-ground under the care of the said Society, and are willing to pay the same rent that hath been offered by any other person, and a year’s advance as soon as the said ground is enclosed, and they are put in possession thereof.They therefore pray that the said ground may be rented to them for one or more years, on the
They therefore pray that the said ground may be rented to them for one or more years, on the terms they propose, and under such regulations as the Common Council shall think proper to make. And your petitioners shall pray.
Signed on behalf of the same, by
MOSES JOHNSON, ABSALOM JONES, Overseers. CYRUS BUSTILL, WILLIAM WHITE, HENRY STEWART, TOD FINCH, ABRAHAM INGLIS, JAMES CATON, Committee
Eleven prominent members of the city’s white community endorsed the back of this petition:
We, the subscribers, having for some time past been acquainted with several of the members of the FREE AFRICAN SOCIETY, ESTABLISHED IN THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, FOR THE BENEFIT OF SUCH AMONG THEM WHO MAY BECOME INFIRM, do certify, that we have informed ourselves of the rules and order established by the said Society, and approve of their Institution, and can therefore recommend the members thereof, as well their humane design, to the notice and attention of their fellow citizens, they being worthy of a degree of confidence and encouragement.
GEO. WILLIAMS, BENJ. RUSH, ASHBY, NICHOLAS WALN, JOSEPH CLARK, WILLIAM WHITE, SAM’L MAGAW, CHARLES WILIAMS, TENCH COXE, JOSEPH JAMES, WILLIAM SAVERY.
On April 26, City Council considered the three petitions they had received, and awarded the lease of the potter’s field to local businessmen Joseph Ogden and Jeremiah Fisher for a term of three years (Philadelphia City Council 1789–1793: 216–234).
1791: On September 7, the City’s Common Council received “A Petition from the free Africans of Philadelphia, praying that the north west corner of the Ground call Potter’s Field may be granted to them for the Purpose of erecting a Church” (Philadelphia City Council 1789–1793: 415–424). Submitted little more than a month after the Free African Society transformed itself into the African Church, this petition identified that the organization’s first choice for locating their house of worship was within this hallowed ground, and reflected the importance placed on associating the church building with the graves of their ancestors. The fact that the petition singled out the northwest corner of the potter’s field may also indicate that this was the location of the “Negroe” section within that larger burial ground. Ultimately, this request was allowed to be voluntarily withdrawn by the church before the council debated it. Five months later, the members of the African Church purchased a lot of ground at 5th and Adelphi Streets for their sanctuary. The church erected on that lot was subsequently renamed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (Douglass 1862: 43–46).
1793: On March 11, the City’s Common Council received a petition from the “Members of the African Society” (Philadelphia City Council 1793–1796: 8–10). Council minutes do not record the subject of this petition, and the original document either has not survived or has not yet been located in an archival collection. This request was submitted exactly three years after the petition of 1790—as the term of Odgen and Fisher’s lease of the potter’s field was expiring—and may have been another attempt by the Free African Society to lease the cemetery grounds.
By late 1794, the potter’s field in Washington Square was closed to the burial of the dead, and the process of turning it into a landscaped public park began shortly after. Sometime around 1798, the remains of individuals buried in the black section of the potter’s field may have been relocated to the graveyard behind St. Thomas’ Church. Information regarding this removal of interments was provided by a former staff member of Independence National Historical Park (Roberts and Benedict 2000). However, documentary evidence confirming that information has not yet been identified. There is no mention of such a relocation effort in any of the local newspapers of the time, and no discussion of such a proposal is mentioned in surviving City Council minutes. A handful of archaeological investigations have been conducted within Washington Square since the 1950s, but these have all been relatively limited in scope. None of the human remains identified during these prior excavations have been verified as belonging to persons of African descent (Mooney and Crist 2007). Burials in the St. Thomas churchyard were moved to Lebanon Cemetery around 1887, and then again to Eden Cemetery, in Delaware County, in 1903 (Keels 2003: 81).