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Archaeological survey set for unmarked Mother Bethel cemetery

It's not that the old Mother Bethel Church burial ground has been lost, exactly. How does one lose a place for the dead?

Terry Buckalew, a retired facilities manager who has documented much of the burial ground, visits Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Terry Buckalew, a retired facilities manager who has documented much of the burial ground, visits Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village. APRIL SAUL / Staff PhotographerRead more

It's not that the old Mother Bethel Church burial ground has been lost, exactly. How does one lose a place for the dead?

James Champion, an original church trustee, dead of tuberculosis, was buried there in 1813. Stephen Laws, another founder, succumbed to typhoid in 1814 and joined Champion in the graveyard.

The Rev. Richard Williams, Mother Bethel's pastor in the 1840s, lies there. So does the Rev. John Boggs, one of the early legends of the church, whose 1848 funeral was attended by 1,000 mourners.

And Sarah Bass Allen, passionate abolitionist and wife of Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel and of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was laid to rest in the old burial ground in 1849, according to city records.

Yet there is no marker at the site, no indication that many members of the founding generation of black America and of the AME church are buried beneath the asphalt, swings, and community center of Weccacoe Playground, near the intersection of Queen and Lawrence Streets in Queen Village.

But now, as renovation of the playground looms and the work of a diligent independent researcher has captured attention, an archaeological survey of the ground is set to begin this week. On May 29, a committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission will consider whether to place the site on the city's Register of Historic Places, providing a measure of protection for the ground from development and disturbance.

"To have something like this is absolutely vital to the story of African Americans in America," said Richard Newman, professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Freedom's Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church and the Black Founding Fathers.

"Allen was always looking for safe and secure places for ritual practices - religious services, burial services - which are absolutely essential to African American life. . . . This is a new layer of the black past that shows how ubiquitous it was in early Philadelphia."

No one is exactly opposed to memorializing the site or certifying it as historic. But lack of opposition does not translate into active support. There has been friction between Mother Bethel and the numerous parties seeking playground renovation, and the independent researcher, Terry Buckalew, a retired University of Pennsylvania facilities manager. Buckalew has documented much of the ground and submitted the designation application to the historical commission on his own. Letters of support have come from U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) and others.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, current pastor of Mother Bethel, supports commemoration of the burial ground and trumpets its importance to the church and to the city's history. Though its existence was known to some church members, he was unaware of it until Buckalew contacted him about three years ago.

Still, Tyler said, the church would not be writing in support of the historic-designation application.

"The application was not submitted by the church and was submitted without any church input at all," he said. "I don't know why I would support something I have not seen."

He characterized Buckalew as "a Lone Ranger type."

Buckalew, 62, who runs a history consulting business, said he stumbled on a reference to the burial ground several years ago while working on another project. Surprised at the paucity of information, he began to pore through city archives as well as those at Mother Bethel, at Sixth and Lombard Streets.

Allen acquired the Bethel site - the nation's oldest piece of land continuously owned by African Americans - in 1787 and began services there in 1794. In 1810, he acquired property bounded by Catherine, Queen, and what are now Lawrence and Leithgow Streets for use as a cemetery. Before that, church members were interred beneath and around the church.

So far, Buckalew has documented 1,380 burials on the Queen Street land, which he believes to be a fraction of the total.

"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," he said. "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."

The burial ground was in active use from 1810 to the 1860s. In 1889, the church sold the site, which was seriously dilapidated, to the city, and it has largely been a park since.

There are no city or church records indicating any remains were ever removed from the ground, according to Buckalew. (No city or church records indicate Sarah Allen was disinterred and moved to the church, where a crypt for her is maintained.)

As Buckalew was gathering this information, a number of neighborhood groups, city agencies, and political leaders were putting the final touches on Green 2015, a plan to turn 500 acres of underused land into green space. Weccacoe Playground, busy but not particularly green, filled the bill and now is in line to become the plan's first site, thanks to converging interests of the Queen Village Neighbors Association, Friends of Weccacoe, Councilman Mark Squilla, the city Parks and Recreation and Water Departments, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

More than two years ago, Buckalew presented his findings to the neighborhood groups. He was welcomed, he said, but got the distinct feeling there was more concern about project delays than about the ground's history.

Jeff Hornstein, president of the neighborhood association, acknowledges "there was a bunch of city money on the table and in a time of economic uncertainty, there was a feeling of 'use it or lose it.' "

About $535,000 in city and state money is available for the green renovation of the playground.

"We're not at all opposed to this thing being historically designated," Hornstein said. "We want to do more commemoration."

Mark Focht, executive director of Fairmount Park, said finding old cemeteries on park sites was not uncommon. "We take this very seriously," he said, noting that his department determined an archaeological survey should be conducted.

All the groups now say they will do whatever Mother Bethel Church wants. Tyler said he was working with the neighborhood groups on memorialization of the site and providing visitors with information on its significance.

"I don't know anybody who loves this story more than Mother Bethel does," he said. "Terry has chosen to go his own way. I do plan to attend the [historical commission] meeting."