Members of a New Jersey-based hate group placed a wreath bearing white supremacist slogans on Benjamin Franklin’s tomb on the Fourth of July, according to officials at Christ Church in Old City. Officials say the group was quickly interrupted and escorted from the graveyard.

Around 11:30 a.m. Thursday, about four men carrying banners gathered around Franklin’s grave at the Christ Church Burial Ground at Fifth and Arch Streets. John Hopkins, director of operations for Christ Church and one of the staffers who stopped them, identified two of the men who visited from photographs as members of the New Jersey European Heritage Association, a group that promotes anti-Semitism and racism.

The men were taking pictures at the burial site with the wreath, which had a white bow that read “Reclaim America,” as well as “Reclaim Your Nation. Reclaim Your Heritage," language that has appeared in the group’s recruitment fliers.

Hopkins informed the group that it did not have permission for a wreath-laying ceremony. One of the men lingered, but ultimately left with the wreath “without incident.”

“I don’t know if they were going to do anything further, but nothing happened after that point,” Hopkins said, adding, “Anyone who comes here shouldn’t be uncomfortable. This should be a safe space for everyone.”

The Rev. Tim Safford, rector at Christ Church, expressed disappointment Monday.

“It’s just terrible," he said. "Clearly this white supremacist hate group [is] trying to connect their vile view to the founders, in this case Benjamin Franklin, for nefarious purposes. It’s our responsibility to stop them as best we can.”

Tina and Jason Blake, center, from St. George, Utah, visit the grave of Benjamin Franklin.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Tina and Jason Blake, center, from St. George, Utah, visit the grave of Benjamin Franklin.

New Jersey European Heritage Association’s website states that “the members of NJEHA do not see the current society as a healthy and cohesive environment suited for their children and grandchildren,” and aim to “wrest political, economic and social control away from the hostile elite who have usurped power in America.” The group did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

The group was launched in 2018 and “has significantly increased its propaganda efforts,” according to Nancy Baron-Baer, a regional director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The association is growing, she continued. Previously, the ADL had observed the group only appearing in Central New Jersey, but more recently has seen its “propaganda” in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, West Virginia. Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina and Florida, she said. In 2018, the ADL Center for Extremism counted eight incidents from the group. There have already been seven times as many incidents recorded so far in 2019 — 56 total as of early July.

“They hold a view that unless they take immediate action, the white race is going toward extinction,” Baron-Baer said.

Heather Boston, a Tennessee tourist visiting the tomb Monday, found the incident troubling.

“Things like that are really tragic and sad, that it still goes on in our nation,” Boston said.

Lyka and Yash Reyes, a mother and son visiting the burial ground, were also saddened by the news. The duo call the Bataan province of the Philippines home, but have been exploring American cities together over the last couple of years since the family relocated to Jacksonville, Fla.

“I think that’s the meanest thing you could do to one of the most important of people," said Yash, 8. "He’s one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence. It’s rude to the other people who love him.”

Lyka said the group’s actions ran contrary to early American values that championed equality for all.

“Even despite our differences, we bleed the same. I think that’s what they believed in,” she said, pointing to graves around her. “It’s still an ongoing fight.”

“Hopefully," Yash added, "it’ll end.”

This story has been changed to reflect that the total number of incidents involving the New Jersey European Heritage Association was 56 as of early July.