In the 18th century, Philadelphia African Americans were buried in unmarked trenches and pits in what we now know as Washington Square at Sixth and Walnut Streets in the city. The Free African Society led by courageous Black citizens attempted to have the city government protect the graves from body snatchers and vandals. They refused so the Black community took the duty of defending the ancestors in “Congo Square” upon themselves.
Phase 1B Archeological Investigations of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground, 1810 -Circa 1864, page 2.2 (Mooney & Morrell 2013). page 2.2.
The red arrow illustrates the location of Dr. Shippen’s morgue and teaching classroom to nearby Washington Square and the Potter’s Field.
Mr. Lamont B. Steptoe is a poet who took it upon himself “for five years to sit among the trees and unmarked graves [of Washington Square/Congo Square] and allow this place to speak” to him. As a result, we have a beautiful book of poetry and self-reflection. The below is from Mr. Steptoe’s 2012 Mediations in “Congo Square” by Whirlwind Press which he founded.
There were some Black men who armed themselves with guns to defend their ancestors. There are others who use just as powerful words to protect them.
Forty-nine-year-old Sarah Field is buried at Bethel Burying Ground with four of her babies.
Ms. Field took in wash and ironing, while her spouse Abraham Field worked as a waiter. They lived on Christian Street between 8th and 9th Street in the Moyamensing District of the county. Both attended church services and belonged to a beneficial society, per the 1847 African American Census.
Ms. Field was forty-years-old when she delivered a stillborn son on April 11th in 1842. The child was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. There were 385 stillborn births in 1842 Philadelphia, according to the Board of Health.
The Fields lost a one-year-old daughter on August 14th in 1844. She was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The child died of “Summer Complaint,” also known as Cholera Infantum which was severe diarrhea in young children that occurred during the warm and hot months of the year. The bacterial disease was transmitted through human feces in water, milk or unwashed hands. Death frequently occurred in three to five days. According to the Philadelphia Board of Health records, 262 children succumbed to the disease in 1844.
Seven-month-old Edward Field died on March 1st in 1851 of a ruptured blood vessel and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground with his brother and sister.
On March 12th in 1851, at forty-nine-years of age, Sarah Field died of “Bed Fever.” She had given birth to a son the day before who died the same day as his mother. Both were buried at Bethel Burying Ground with the other Field children. “Bed Fever,” also known as Puerperal Fever, was a bacterial infection contracted by a woman who has given birth. Consequently, “blood poisoning” or septicemia sets in and takes the life of the woman. Board of Health records show that forty-one Philadelphia women died of Puerperal Fever in 1851. The number seems low.
The high rate of stillbirths in this era is attributed to the lack of proper maternal nutrition and the possible infection of the fetus with Tetanus or lockjaw. This is transmitted by the mother through an infected umbilical cord. (A Biohistory of 19th-Century Afro-American by Lesley M. Rankin-Hill, p. 77.)
The human remains of Ms. Sarah Field and her four children continue to be interred at Bethel Burying Ground under the Weccacoe Playground. (Photo by WHYY)
Rev. Richard Allen’s Song Book
24 May 1888: Philadelphia City Councilman Roberts reports the selection of 5 plots of land to become new city parks. The one that is to be called Weccacoe Park, in the Third Ward, “is now an old colored burying ground.”
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.
Check the link below for the updated Bethel Burying Ground Timeline.
Bethel Burying Ground Timeline 2019
The African American community in Philadelphia was constantly under the threat of violence from the racist mobs that controlled the city. The year 1853 was a particularly ugly time in the northern districts of the city and the county. The deadly assaults on Black men walking alone in these areas started a couple weeks before the 4th of July and continued through the rest of the year. The white-owned newspapers even lamented about the unprovoked brutal physical attacks in the Northern Liberties, Fairmount and Spring Garden sections of the county.
In October of that year, a funeral procession started out from the Northern Liberties District and was headed for the Bethel Burying Ground to inter an honored African American citizen, Mr. James Johnson Richmond. The procession was led by Mr. Richmond’s fellow Masons who carried the coffin on their shoulders for twelve miles to the cemetery followed by family and friends. The cortège was led by a marching band and the Masons in their formal uniforms followed by a “long line” of family and friends.
The procession was harassed all along the eleven-mile route and the situation quickly escalated into a running battle between the mourners and the white mob. A mile from the cemetery the gauntlet worsens with the arrival of more gang members at 6th and Chestnut Street.
The latter half of 1853 was not only a time of heightening fears among whites in Philadelphia but throughout the country. In May the telegraph wires crackled with the breaking news that a large army of Black men, free and enslaved, were heading toward New Orleans to riot, rape, and pillage. The newspapers told the story of “half-crazed negroes” leading a “negro insurrection.” These rebels were goated on by abolitionists who were “depraved whites” creating a “negro mania.” Militias supposedly were called to arms to stop the wild horde. There was one problem. It never happened. There was no Black army, no insurgency and no army was rushing to the area. But that didn’t stop newspapers nationwide from speculating on the possible atrocities. What the hoax accomplished was the increase in tensions in the southern plantations and in the northern cities.
In the end, Mr. James Richmond, a waiter, lately of 417 N. 4th Street was laid to rest by his battered and bruised family and friends. But the threat of violence wouldn’t stop the long funeral procession from coming – day after day and week after week.
The vast majority of those interred at Bethel Burying Ground were poor working class men and women who relied on the free clinics (dispensaries) for their family’s healthcare needs. These clinics were spread across the county and provided office visits and home visits if necessary. Below are links to better understand the system and the physicians who voluntarily provided their services.
Pencak, William. “Free Health Care for the Poor: The Philadelphia Dispensary.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 136 (January 2012): 25-52.