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Queen Village burial ground a hot topic

City to host discussion tonight on future of historic cemetery, now part of a playground.

Archaeologists perform test excavations in the summer of 2013. The land, acquired by Richard Allen in 1810, was a cemetery until about 1868. (Akira Suwa/Staff/File)
Archaeologists perform test excavations in the summer of 2013. The land, acquired by Richard Allen in 1810, was a cemetery until about 1868. (Akira Suwa/Staff/File)Read more

IGNATIUS BECK, a freed former slave, had a life story that nearly rivals that of Solomon Northup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery who was the subject of the movie "12 Years a Slave."

Beck came to Philadelphia from Maryland in 1805 and was a member of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1810, when, according to historian Terry Buckalew, he was duped into traveling south for a business venture.

Beck spent two years re-enslaved in Virginia before he was able to escape and return to Philadelphia.

He is one of 5,000 people whose bodies lie in the old Bethel Burying Ground beneath the Weccacoe Playground, on Catharine Street near 4th, in Queen Village.

At 6:30 tonight at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, will host what might be a contentious meeting about how to commemorate the spot while also moving forward with planned renovations to the playground.

The Rev. Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel church, at 6th and Lombard streets, purchased the cemetery in 1810. The church sold it to the city in 1889.

For months, tensions have been simmering between two factions over the burial ground. Both sides agree that it should be commemorated, but they disagree over the future of a community center above it.

"Queen Village Neighbors Association is going around telling people we are trying to take their playground from their children," said Joseph Certaine, a former city managing director who is the spokesman for the coalition Friends of Bethel Burying Ground.

He said the center is leased to the association, which rents it out for birthday parties and other activities.

Certaine and lawyer-activist Michael Coard want the building dismantled and the cemetery fenced off.

"Our concern is the burial ground itself and the activity on top of it," Certaine said. "We want them to cease activity in the building."

The other side - including Queen Village Neighbors Association, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church and descendants of Richard Allen - says the playground should be renovated and the building used to teach the history of the cemetery and life in Philadelphia in the 19th century.

Duncan Spencer, president of Friends of Weccacoe Playground and a board member of Queen Village Neighbors Association, said he wants the association to stop renting out the center.

He said the group is barely breaking even on a $130 rental fee - after paying for insurance, a staffer to open and close, and cleaning up after parties.

"Our biggest vision for the building is for a place to house the memorial for the cemetery," Spencer said.

Spencer said his coalition would love to see it used for an after-school program.

"We want to have a place where latchkey kids can come to have a safe environment to have access to computers, do their homework and recreate outside."

Each side has accused the other of ramping up "agitation" over the issue.

Spencer said that historian Buckalew, who is white, has said the city would not allow people to walk over a historically white cemetery.

"That's not true," Spencer said. "If it's a desecration, then that has implications all over the city.

He said that both Washington Square and the new Sister Cities Park in Logan Square are both above old cemeteries.