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.
Burials at Bethel Burying Ground were often, but not always preceded by a memorial service at Bethel Church (now Mother Bethel). The historical record contains the details of such a service in 1805 in which the following hymns were sung –
-Rejoice for a brother disceased [sic]
-Hark from the tombs
-My God my heart with Love inflame (1)
On the way to the gravesite, the procession sang “A solemn March we make.” On returning from the grave, the mourners would also sing. A popular hymn for this occasion was from the hymnal that Richard Allen published in 1801. It was “O blessed estate of the dead.”
“Richard Allen: A Collection of Hymns and Songs,” p. 40. Published by Mother Bethel AMEC (1987).
Long lines of mourners in procession from 6th and Lombard Streets to 5th and Queen Streets singing to the heavens – what a beautiful scene that must have been!
(1) American Methodist Worship, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, 207-08.