ABOVE PHOTO: Mother Bethel AME Church
(Photo/H Michael Hammie)
A headstone from the early 1800’s, along with other artifacts uncovered at the site of the old Mother Bethel Burial ground was on display last Sunday, August 4, 2013, at Mother Bethel AME Church, 419 South 6th Street. The community is invited to come to the church and view the items uncovered during a recent archaeological dig at the burial site which is now known as Weccacoe playground on South Queen Street between 4th and 5th. A panel of experts who have been involved with the project was be on hand to clarify recent media reports, discuss facts about the project, and answer questions about the next steps.
“There have been a number of errors in the reporting and blogging of this very important story and we simply want to set the record straight,” says Rev. Mark Tyler, PhD, Mother Bethel’s pastor. “This is a big story and it is still unfolding. We know that in the haste to get good news out to the public, sometimes people get the facts mixed up. One misstated fact in today’s world of instant social media can take on a life of its own that can get away from you.”
PHOTO: The tombstone marker of Amelia Brown that was found at the burial site that was uncovered at playground at 6th & Lombard Streets across the street from Mother Bethel AME Church.
(Photo by H Michael Hammie)
For example, many news reports state that 3,000 bodies are still buried in the site, when that number has been only used to speculate how many could possibly be interred. “We only have the names of 1500 people who were buried at the site,” says historian Terry Buckalew who shed light on this largely forgotten story about the Bethel Burial Ground while researching another project. Buckalew brought his findings to Mother Bethel’s pastor and the Queen Village Neighborhood Association.
The former pastors of Mother Bethel, a few church members, and a handful of members of the community recalled that they’d heard accounts about the cemetery turned playground. However, there was no historical marker near the site so the story faded over the years. “But the story was always right there in our church archives, buried in the minutes of the Trustee Board of Mother Bethel,” says Mother Bethel’s archivist Margaret Jerrido. “The minutes detail the decision to sell the property to the city for $10,000.”
PHOTO: Pastor Mark Kelly Tyler (at microphone),(seated from left) Terry Buckalew, Michael Coard, Jennifer Mahar, Duncan Spencer and Douglas Mooney were the members of the panel during the discussion in regards to the burial site that was found at playground at 6th & Lombard Streets across the street from Mother Bethel AME Church.
(Photo by H Michael Hammie)
“We were in the process of raising money to renovate the playground and building at Weccacoe,” says Jeff Hornstein, President of the Queen Village Neighbors Association (www.qvna.org). “When Mr. Buckalew brought his findings to the board and the church, we immediately stopped our renovation plans and began working with Mother Bethel, Mr. Buckalew, and the City of Philadelphia, on a proper commemoration of the historic site.” Both the neighborhood association and the city say they are following the lead of Mother Bethel as it relates to the commemoration.
“My office has worked closely with Mother Bethel and QVNA since we found out about the Bethel Burial Ground over a year ago,” says Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla. “I commend Mother Bethel and QVNA for developing this close relationship so that this site can become both a first-class playground for our children and appropriately commemorate the important history buried beneath it.”
The City of Philadelphia paid for two archaeological digs to establish the boundaries of the cemetery so that the original graves will not be disturbed during renovations or at any time in the future. “There are several sites in the Parks and Recreation system which served as burial grounds,” says Mark A. Focht, First Deputy Commissioner of the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. “At each we have worked closely with the community, archaeologists and regulators to preserve and honor the sanctity of the site.”