Facing strong community opposition, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has scrapped plans to build new homes atop a former 18th-century burial ground for African Americans that now lies beneath a soon-to-be-demolished apartment complex in the Germantown section.
At a sometimes raucous meeting with about 150 community members and others Thursday night, Michael Johns, PHA's general manager for community development and design, announced - to the surprise of many - that the authority had dropped plans to build more than 50 homes on the site of the former Germantown Potter's Field.
During the meeting at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Johns cited opposition raised at a Dec. 15 meeting there.
"We always intended to honor the Potter's Field by both ceremony and some kind of monument," said Johns, but "we heard the voices of the community."
He noted comments by a young woman who he said told him, "We believe that in 1955, when the high-rise was originally put on this site, that the ancestors were disrespected. And although your plan is to put houses where the current high rise is, and there are no remains left there, it still does not address the disrespect that was done to our ancestors back in 1955."
Johns said the woman's remarks prompted officials to reconsider.
"That hit all of us, and when we came back we had to look at things differently," Johns said. "We thought we were doing the right thing by creating affordable housing on what was a potter's field because of the sore need for affordable rental housing.
"We said . . . 'Maybe we do need to open the Potter's Field land up.' We said, 'We are going to open this site and we are going to honor the ancestors who were here.' "
PHA officials said 55 new housing units will be built in the area of the Queen Lane Apartments but not on the site of the burial grounds.
The burial ground, established in the 1700s, lies beneath the twin towers of the Queen Lane Apartments at Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue. Those apartments are set to be demolished in the next few months, along with the adjacent Wissahickon Playground.
Neighbors and others noted that when the 16-story complex, with 119 apartments, was constructed, some graves and human remains were disturbed.
A brief history of the Germantown Potter's Field by the Germantown Historical Society notes that the lot that the burial ground would occupy was purchased in 1755 by Matthias Zimmerman for use as a "Burial Place for all Strangers, Negroes and Mulattoes as they Die in any part of Germantown forever."
The earliest known recorded burial was that of Christian Warner's "dead negro child" in 1766.
According to the history, "the Potter's Field was used in this manner until 1916 when the city's Board of Health declared it a public nuisance."
Through that decade, the site "suffered from neglect and frequent use as a dumping ground. In 1920, members John T. Emlen and other Quakers helped establish a playground there." It remained that way until the high rise was built.
The history drew the attention of lawyer Michael Coard, a founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition. His organization successfully pressed the federal government to memorialize African descendants held as slaves by George Washington at the first "White House," the site at Fifth and Market Streets now known as the President's House.
After the meeting, Coard said he was he was satisfied by the PHA's decision.
"I wanted to make sure there are some plans to acknowledge the ancestors. So far, there seems to be. The question is, to what extent?" Coard said. "We're here to make sure that the voices that can no longer speak will be heard by us and through us."
Ari Merretzon, cochair for the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, a group seeking reparations for descendants of African slaves, said after the meeting that PHA's shift "is a great announcement because it brings forth a lot of possibilities in terms of putting together a burial ground for our ancestors. We would like to engage in that type of discussion."
Neighbors told PHA officials that they were concerned about how the demolition of the high rise would be done and what impact it might have on the community.
Some expressed concern that an implosion might damage plumbing and cause structural problems in surrounding homes. Johns told the neighbors the demolition concerns would be addressed at coming meetings with area residents.
After PHA announced the change in plans, architects and planners sat down with the neighbors to write down their ideas for how to use the site after demolition. Johns said plans for the site would be based on the wishes of the community.
"This land will be opened to the public, and this land will be something that everybody can be proud of, including the Housing Authority, the residents, and our ancestors," Johns said.