Winning design for the Bethel Burying Ground is called ‘spiritually and culturally ingenious’
An associate professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, Karyn Olivier lives in Germantown and creates sculptures, installations and public art.
As part of her research, Karyn Olivier, the Philadelphia artist whose design was selected for the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Memorial, had spent hours sitting in the Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village, watching how people and their children used the space.
She read the stories of some of the more than 5,000 men, women, and children buried beneath the playground that are told on historian Terry Buckalew’s “Bethel Burying Ground Project” website.
“I would get teary-eyed as I read Terry’s website and then, I’d get enraged, too,” Olivier said Friday, one day after city officials announced that her design, Her Luxuriant Soil, had been selected.
“You could see that Black people’s deaths in the 1800s were caused by pandemics and illnesses and here it is 200 years later, and Black and brown people are still dying [disproportionately from pandemics]. It feels like we haven’t moved forward.”
An associate professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University, Olivier, 53, who lives in Germantown, creates sculptures, installations, and public art.
Born in Trinidad and reared in New York, Olivier first came to Philadelphia at 30 after leaving a career in business to study art. That was in 1997 and she spent two years here, studying at the University of the Arts and at Tyler, where she now teaches.
She moved here in 2011, just about the time Buckalew was alerting the city and neighborhood leaders that the once-forgotten Bethel Burying Ground existed.
“Philadelphia is the place where I became an artist. … I’m a New Yorker, I can’t help that, but I feel committed to this city. I feel loved by it, and I love this place.”
An honoring of Americans and their origins
Olivier’s design for the burial ground, with construction expected to begin this summer, uses multiple elements to create a living monument to the dead:
On either side of an ornate, 19th-century-style cemetery gate on the Queen Street side, two sculptures of sankofa birds will sit on top of two brick pillars. Sankofa is a word in the Akan and Fante languages of Ghana, meaning “to retrieve,” or “go back and get” one’s history in order to understand the past and prepare for the future.
Thus, the memorial not only honors the African Americans buried there but their origins in Africa.
Inside the gate, a brick pathway will outline the footprint of the cemetery, including part of the cemetery grounds that extend beyond the playground.
White granite and concrete pavers will cover the surface of the cemetery and will be engraved with inscriptions telling the stories of those buried there, based on Buckalew’s research.
Some of the pavers will be treated with a special coating that allows the inscriptions to become visible only in humid or wet weather, a city announcement said, while other pavers will remain blank, because so many people are still not identified.
The artist said she came up with this idea of having the biographies revealed when the weather changes because Buckalew’s biographies sometimes mentioned what the weather was on the day a person died.
For instance, of Gideon Miller, who died at age 47 on March 10, 1846, Buckalew noted: ”Mr. Miller died on a clear day in March where the temperature rose to a seasonable 50 degrees. He was buried by his family, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground.”
» READ MORE: Renovation of playground over cemetery is halted
Having the pavers change when it rains was a way to make the memorial a living thing, especially for the Queen Village community members who visit the playground often.
“I wanted to make a piece that keeps changing, and you’re going to see a paver that you didn’t see before, to keep it active, mutable, and malleable,” Olivier said. “Also, it’s a playground, so children can come in with their buckets and play.”
There will also be a series of cradle graves with flowers as part of the memorial.
“Flowers have been part of funerary customs for thousands of years,” Olivier said. Her vision is for the community to come together “to spruce it up in the spring, and tend to it. There’s something about the beauty of flowers, they are a living and breathing entity.”
The $1.15 million project, which includes removing the existing recreation building and replacement of the tennis courts, is expected to be completed by summer 2022.
Part of her inspiration was that despite African Americans having stories of hardship or oppression, she wanted to point out they also had beauty in their lives.
A monument built out of protest
The story of the Weccacoe Playground, at 400 Catharine St., and the Bethel Burying Ground site sparked protests in the city in 2013.
Michael Coard, a lawyer and activist with the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, and others at first denounced plans to renovate the playground without acknowledging the graves buried there.
Yes, other parks and playgrounds are built on top of cemeteries, Coard said.
But this cemetery is different because Bishop Richard Allen and trustees of the historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church purchased the land in 1810. Allen had already acquired the Mother Bethel church site in 1787, which is the nation’s oldest piece of land continuously owned by African Americans. He began services there in 1794. (In 1889, the church sold the burial ground property to the city, and the property was turned into a public park and playground.)
“It was the founding generation of the church, but also the founding generation of a colony, a self-sufficient colony, which is what the African Americans in the early 19th century had to be to survive in Philadelphia,” Buckalew told The Inquirer in a 2013 article.
“They had to found their own schools, their own churches, their own stores — everything they needed to survive. I’m very taken by that story.”
On Friday, Coard said he had been “blown away” by Olivier’s design, which he described as “spiritually and culturally ingenious.”
“We always talk about avenging our ancestors, but we don’t mean getting revenge. … Avenge is to demand justice for that wrong.”
“Now we’re talking about avenging each of those 5,000 people — some said it could be as many as 8,000 — who are buried there. Now each of those souls is finally able to rest in peace.”