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Bethel Burying Ground meeting draws large crowd

Speakers talk of respect, compromise, remembrance.

A STANDING-room-only crowd filled the African American Museum in Philadelphia last night to discuss how the city should commemorate a rediscovered burial ground that lies beneath a Queen Village playground.

A major theme was how to show respect for the Bethel Burying Ground.

One man said he was a member of Christ Church. "Benjamin Franklin is buried in the cemetery there," he said. "Would we have a playground there?"

A few minutes later, another Christ Church member said people are buried under the aisles of the church itself: "They walk over the placards and read the names." In that way, he said, they are remembered and honored.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard streets - whose founder, the Rev. Richard Allen, purchased Bethel Burying Ground at the start of the 19th century - said the playground is adjacent to, but not directly above, the burial ground.

"The children will not be playing on top of the dead," Tyler said. "There is nothing more powerful than being able to tell and use the burial ground as a story for children who come every day, children who are black, who are white, who are brown, who are Christian, who are Jewish, who are nonbelievers."

The cemetery land on Queen Street near 4th was purchased, Tyler said, "at a time when black people couldn't bury their own dead in the city of Philadelphia."

Tyler said the church and members of Queen Village Neighbors Association and the Friends of Weccacoe Playground "are not wedded" to the idea of keeping a community center, which is above the burial site.

A woman who lives on Catharine Street said the playground has changed in the past 12 years. Once a hangout for mostly teenagers, it has become a place for families.

"We have a home office," she said. "We can hear the parents and children and laughter and joy that comes from that space. I can't help but think it's nothing short of a miracle."

But one resident said she was afraid that fencing off "that large, blue square," where the burial ground is, would affect property values and quality of life.

Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, assured her that "ultimately, there will be compromise."

Katie Kelly, a mother of two, said that whenever a kickball comes out at the playground, children of every socioeconomic level, color and religion join together to play.

"We have to follow the example of the children and come together and recognize that we share in the community," she said.

After the meeting, Kelly's son David DeFalco, 6, said: "If you shut down the playground, we will never be able to celebrate the dead and the people buried there."

His sister Caroline, 5, said: "I like that it's a graveyard and a place that we can play."

Lawyer Michael Coard, founder of the Avenge the Ancestors Coalition, praised the crowd for being "reasonable" and "not attacking each other."

Added Christopher Barton, an archaeologist at Temple University: "This is a site of national significance. . . . Cemeteries create this kind of bridge between the past, the present and the future."

More meetings are expected.