Over the course of his two-plus years in office, Mayor Kenney has been unable to make good on his signature campaign promise to rebuild the city’s dilapidated rec centers. But last month his administration quietly took the first step toward demolishing a perfectly sound and heavily used Queen Village meeting hall.
And, strange as it may sound, that is a very good thing.
The two-room community center has occupied a shady spot at the southern end of Weccacoe Playground on Catharine Street for the better part of a century, playing host to the sundry neighborhood activities that are a staple of Philadelphia life — civic association meetings, zoning debates, election day voting, park cleanups. For most of that time, no one realized that the building sat on top of what is perhaps the most important African American burial ground in the country. That cemetery was established by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States.
The discovery in 2008, by historian Terry Buckalew, took a lot of people by surprise, including some at Mother Bethel AME Church, the congregation that established the cemetery in 1810 and sold the land to the city. Buckalew’s findings fired up the city’s civil rights activists, who saw the graveyard’s treatment as yet another example of the way African American spaces have been rendered invisible, while alarming Queen Village residents, who feared that an important community center and playground would be unilaterally taken from them.
What could have been an ugly fight that stressed the neighborhood’s racial fault lines has instead ended in a remarkably amicable consensus. The Kenney administration, which inherited the issue from Mayor Michael Nutter, took things slowly. A committee of residents and activists was formed to jointly plan the future of the graveyard, known as the Bethel Burying Ground. Although city officials always said their goal was to find a way to delineate the cemetery from the rest of the playground, and give the historic site a worthy memorial, they didn’t dictate how that outcome would be achieved.
Now there is a plan. After two years of discussions by the memorial committee, the Queen Village Neighborhood Association voted last month to shutter the meeting hall, clearing the way for its demolition. A formal closing ceremony is scheduled for June 12 at 11 a.m. “While it’s a loss of community space, it’s a loss for all the right reasons,” the group’s president, Eleanor Ingersoll, told me.
Across America, communities are only just beginning to grapple with recognizing — or, rather, their failure to recognize — black historic sites. The Presidents House Memorial at Sixth and Market, which opened in 2010, had originally been envisioned as a shrine to George Washington’s Philadelphia White House, but grew into a more meaningful tribute that honors the nine people enslaved in the president’s household. The new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., known as the “Lynching Memorial,” has caused a stir, in part, because of the way it demonstrates the connection between public space and America’s shameful history of racial terror.
Given all the historical twists and turns at this site, a Bethel Burying Ground memorial could tell an equally illuminating story about Philadelphia. According to the National Register nomination, Mother Bethel was forced to purchase the tiny parcel in 1810 because African American cemeteries were not allowed in Philadelphia. Since South Street marked the city limits, the church selected a site on the 400 block of Queen Street, in what was then Southwark Township, a mostly black neighborhood.
The small burial ground ran out of room in 1864. By that time, the prohibition on black cemeteries in Philadelphia had been lifted and Mother Bethel was actively raising money to build a new church on its historic site at Sixth and Lombard. Even though there were some 5,000 people buried in the cemetery, the church leased the land to a sugar refiner, which used the property to store barrels and wagons. People were appalled. “A most shameful spectacle – old hogsheads, and barrels and lumber of every conceivable shape. Not a gravestone unbroken, not a grave to be seen,” complained one AME bishop. After the Philadelphia Tribune ran an article shaming Mother Bethel, the church decided it would be better off selling the property to the city for a park.
Over the decades, the park was enlarged and improved. By the 1920s, it was a playground serving a neighborhood increasingly composed of white European immigrants. Between 1990 and 2010, as Queen Village evolved into an affluent middle-class neighborhood, the percentage of its black population fell by half. The memory of the burial ground was completely lost.
But after the city announced in 2013 that it was going to redo the playground, Buckalew said he felt compelled to make his research public. Archaeological studies ensued, and the site was named a city landmark in 2013, setting off years of discussions about the proper way to treat the remains.
Naturally, there are no small number of questions about what happens next. The closure of the community center, which became effective right after the May 15 primary election, leaves Queen Village’s civic group without an office or meeting space and, more urgently in some quarters, no bathrooms for playground users. There is still no timeline for demolishing the community center or removing the tennis court, which trespasses onto the graveyard by several feet. (The playground is outside the burial ground boundaries and will remain intact.)
It’s crucial for the city to help the Queen Village Neighborhood Association locate new space. The loss of an office is a real hardship in an age when civics increasingly perform government functions, like vetting zoning maps and handing out recycling bins. Dozens of local groups, like the Friends of Weccacoe, are scrambling to find places to hold meetings. “One wanted to charge us $300 a meeting,” said Ingersoll.
There is also no consensus yet about how the site should be memorialized. The city plans to hold public meetings this fall to establish guidelines for a memorial design competition. Mayor Kenney has set aside $150,000 for demolition and design work, but that will hardly be enough, even with Councilman Mark Squilla pitching in an additional $50,000. The worst case would be for the burial ground to end up like the historic Germantown potter’s field, which was fenced off after the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Queen Lane tower was torn down. Overgrown with weeds, it is a poor way to mark the past.
Buckalew, who has so far established biographies for 2,486 people in the burial ground and posted them on his blog, hopes that the future memorial will “be something that pulls the story together.”
Memorials can be static objects that we venerate one day a year. Or they can be places that continue to educate us and make us see the world in a new way. We can’t dismantle the racial inequalities in America until we can see and experience the spaces where that history took place. “All we know,” said Karen Warrington, a member of the memorial committee, “is that this is going to be a long process.”