Bethel Burying Ground in the Summer of 1904
Bethel Burying Ground was the location of the first community garden in the city of Philadelphia. In 1889, Philadelphia’s City Council purchased Bethel Burying Ground from the trustees of Bethel Church A.M.E. with the intention of turning it into a “pocket park” and playground. The more than 5,000 bodies buried at the small cemetery were not removed and the tombstones and surrounding brick walls already had been vandalized and “disfigured,” according to newspaper reports. A.M.E bishop and journalist Benjamin Tucker Tanner condemned the trustees of Bethel Church for the condition of the graveyard and the disrespect it showed to the Church’s founding members.
To the annoyance of the local adults, the boys of the neighborhood played baseball on the flattened cemetery and were responsible for numerous broken windows of nearby homes. From 1889 to 1904, the once-venerated ground also was being used for burning the rubbish of local households and for the dumping of garbage and dead animals. Although the city had allocated the funds for purchasing the land, the City Council had not been forthcoming with the money to develop the now hard clay barren lot into a usable park.
The city knew the bodies still laid under the hardpan soil. In a national magazine of the time, it was reported that the “impression prevailed” that, at one point, the lot “was sort of a Potter’s Field.” There were several newspaper articles at the time of the sale of the lot to the city describing the grounds as formerly an African American cemetery belonging to Bethel Church A.M.E. for which the church was paid $10,000.
In early May of 1904, Philadelphia City Council responded to a petition from the Public Education Association to fund two public school gardens. One of which was going to be at Weccacoe Square. Before seeds could be planted, a good deal of work had to be done. The first plowing “turned up bricks, more bricks, and apparently more bricks, but bravely the children picked and piled,” according to a national gardening magazine. The bricks were likely the remains of the brick walls that surrounded the small cemetery. In addition, the children were raking up “old shoes, hats, tin cans, baskets, dead cats…,” all of which were piled up and turned into “a glorious bonfire.” Forty truckloads of fertilizer (animal and human) then were dumped and spread by the children across the graves. Eventually, a low wood fence surrounding the land was erected, paths were dug, and plots laid out in symmetrical rows. The garden was divided into 250 individual plots, each 4 ½ x 11 ½ feet with seeds planted for radishes, small turnips, lettuce, peas, tomatoes, lima beans, carrots, and string beans.
The garden’s neighbors, mainly Russian Jews who fled the pogroms of Imperial Russia, looked out their windows daily wondering out loud in Yiddish about the undertaking. Others ventured down to lean on the garden fence and reminisce about their farms in the old country. They marveled at the newly built tool shed with its colorfully painted wheelbarrows, and the “symmetrical rows of rakes, hoes, and watering cans hanging against the wall.” Hundreds of people visited the garden, some from other cities, to see the garden. Teachers in the city took a great interest and would bring their classes to see what hard work could achieve.
Bethel Burying Ground was used as a vegetable garden for only one year because of the beginning of construction the following Spring of a playground and park over the graves.
Bethel Burying Ground in 1904