By Community Affairs Reporter Cherri Gregg
PHILADELPHIA--- The Weccacoe Playground near 4th and Queen Street in Queen Village has a bright future-- the site will soon undergo a half-a-million dollars in renovations. But what's more interesting is the playground's past and what lies beneath the surface.
"In the last six years, I've identified by name, 1500 individuals by name that are buried here and there are probably double that number," says Terry Buckalew, a local historian who says he rediscovered history of the land sandwiched between Queen and Catherine Streets when he stumbled the name "Bethel Burial Ground" while working on another historical project a few years ago. About a third of the area now owned by the city and houses the playground, was used as a cemetery for African Americans in the 19th century.
"It was purchased by Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel in 1810 and used it continuously as a burial ground continuously until 1864," he says.
During that time, Buckalew says African Americans were not allowed to be buried within the city of Philadelphia, they were also not permitted burial in "white" cemeteries.
"The burial ground really speaks to the issue of race and class in the early 1800s," says Reverend Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, which sits nearby at 6th and Lombard Streets. "There were no places for African Americans to be buried. We needed our own places [to bury people]- it's a sad part of our history."
Tyler says in the 1800s, people were buried vertically, so six or seven people could be buried on top of each other in one plot, many times whole families. Life expectancy was pretty low at the time due to outbreaks of yellow fever and other ailments and that was especially so for poor African Americans.
"About 1/3 of the people buried there are children under two-years-old," says Buckalew, who was on site during a recent archaeological survey at the park, which he says uncovered the remains of wooden coffins. "This is the first private, solely-owned African American burial ground in the city of Philadelphia. There were other burial grounds, but they were church yards."
Sometime in the 1860s, the land fell into disrepair, with headstones becoming broken or bring removed. Buckalew says it was one of the only open areas of space, so children and area residents began using the cemetery as a play area. Eventually, the city of Philadelphia purchased the land in 1889 and turned it into Weccacoe Park, which was used as a community garden. "Weccacoe" is a Lenape Indian term that is said to mean "peaceful place."
"When the church sold it, they used the proceeds to purchase and help build the current building that we're in now," says Tyler. He says the burial ground was never lost, but it was not recorded in history books and was rarely discussed by members who knew of the old cemetery. "We've been fortunate that there has been no significant digging on that land since 1889 and that the remains are, for the most part, still in tact."
The city built a play playground in 1910. The friends of Weccacoe Playground, a committee of the Queen Village Neighbors Association has been working with the city of Philadelphia, elected officials and others to renovate the playground and park area.
"We want Bethel Burial ground and Weccacoe Playground to be both a beautiful place to play, as well as a bridge from the past to the future," says Jeff Hornstein, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association.
Preliminary plans for the renovated playground will be revealed tonight at 7:30 at St. Philip Neri Church on Queen Street. Hornstein says the Friends of Weccacoe have roughly $500,000 to renovate the playground and are working to raise more money to renovate the building that sits in the park.
For more info on Weccacoe Park and the Bethel Burying Ground, check out the following links:
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