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Embracing the past on the way to the future: Bethel Burying Ground Committee prepares to choose a public memorial

February 16, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler sometimes struggles with the circumstances surrounding the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s decision to sell its sacred burial ground — located on what’s now Weccacoe Playground in Queen Village — over 150 years ago.

Many parishioners at the time carried the burden of the country’s failed Reconstruction, an era that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, while still hoping for the government to make good on its promise of reparations as prescribed in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15. The Black community didn’t even see justice in death — the deceased were often segregated and buried in anonymous “potter’s fields” only to be dug up by graverobbers for use in area medical schools.

According to Rev. Tyler, a Philadelphia transplant from Oakland, California, who now serves as the Mother Bethel AME’s pastor, the original bill of sale from the burial grounds netted Mother Bethel AME $10,000 in 1889. Congregants found themselves having to choose either Scylla and Charybdis: officials could exhume the remains of their dead for reburial or put the money toward a much-needed new church for their growing congregation.

“Part of that story for me has been the gut-wrenching decision of this Black congregation in 1889, and the pastor and officers having to decide where to put [their] money,” Rev. Tyler said. He wears the pain of that decision today, he told Generocity, and imagines a long-forgotten church meeting where weeping parishioners went home feeling unsettled about the decision.

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“Christchurch for example, and St. Peters, and old First Reform — these other churches that were in our neighborhood, in Old City and Society Hill — they didn’t have to make similar decisions because those churches were much better off,” Rev. Tyler continued. “The people who attended them had good-paying jobs because that’s how America was there. The majority of the congregation had not been enslaved 20 years before.”

Today, a diverse group of Philadelphians seeks to memorialize the 5,000 African Americans interred underneath the paved-over plot of land — which was unearthed 10 years ago — and to recognize the Bethel Burial Grounds with a public art memorial. Led by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee sought public input on the project while juggling the need to ensure the land remains a viable public square and play space for the Queen Village neighborhood.

But Rev. Tyler grapples with the original circumstances that forced the congregation to sell the land over 150 years ago and what it says about the broader Black experience in contemporary America.

“These are the decisions that Black people have consistently had to make in this country because we have yet to come to reckon with the way in which this country was started,” he said. Had America fulfilled Sherman’s promise of 40 acres and mule, he said, Mother Bethel AME would be in a better place. A congregation made whole by reparations wouldn’t be having these conversations about the burial ground today.

“My own understanding about this place has evolved greatly in the last eight or nine years,” he continued. “I just view it now as an example of something so much deeper in this country that is yet to be resolved.”

Richard Allen founded Mother Bethel AME in direct response to racial discrimination. Officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church would pull Black worshippers off their knees mid-prayer, leading to the establishment of  the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. In 1807 and 1815, Mother Bethel’s founder and its first pastor successfully sued for the church’s independence in Pennsylvania court.

Over the intervening years, Mother Bethel AME experienced exponential growth, which, coupled with the racially-charged policies of local cemeteries, precipitated the purchase of the Queen Village burial site. According to historical documents and city records, the grounds, which were in active use until about 1864, became the final resting site for church members and many poor and destitute persons within the African American community. As the site’s archaeological dig report noted, most souls went to rest without mention in the newspapers of the day.

For those reasons, persons who know and study Richard Allen’s life see him as a visionary whose work continues to impact.

Yvonne Studevan.

“He was determined that he was going to overcome slavery and he worked his whole life to abolish slavery,” said Yvonne Studevan, a direct descendant of Allen and his wife, Sarah Bass. Studevan, who lives and attends the AME church in Athens, Georgia, documents her famous ancestor’s teachings to continue his story and find a deeper connection to him.

She shared with Generocity a particular writing of Allen’s called “Skylight,” from a book titled “Acts of Love, Hope, and Faith.” The church’s premier pastor expressed his love for God and asked how it could be reciprocated.

“He tried to do as many things as he could to bring dignity to the Black man because that was one thing that slavery attempted to strip away when they tried to strip away our culture was those things that provided dignity,” said Studevan, who is an active member of the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee. “Being able to be married in a church, being able to be buried in the cemetery and not have your body cast off into ‘potter’s field’ where it could be grave-robbed.”

“Looking at the Bethel burying ground, [Richard Allen] wanted to provide a place for a dignified burial for Black people,” she added.

But mismanagement of the unused grounds allowed them to fall into disrepair by 1889. The Board of Health labeled them a nuisance, and the Philadelphia Tribune damned them as unsalvageable. Unable to afford upkeep or a proposed plan to exhume the bodies and move them to nearby Olive Cemetery, church elders found forced upon them those circumstances with which Rev. Tyler continues to grapple today.

Within 10 years, the paved-over land became Weccacoe Park, and after a century-worth of renovations, those buried there were forgotten.

But that all changed a few years ago when independent historian Terry Buckalew rediscovered the site, bringing the dead back to life. In 2010, he presented his findings to the Friends of Weccacoe Playground and several other organizations, amid another park-wide revitalization project. An archeological dig confirmed the discovery, uncovering numerous artifacts, including decaying coffin wood, the cemetery wall, and the headstone of 26-year-old Amelia Brown, who died in 1813.

In 2013, the Friends of the Bethel Burying Ground Coalition came together to educate the public and advocate for its historical significance. Four years later, the city organized the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee, and in 2019 the state placed on it an official historical marker. The site is also marked by the National Park Services National Register of Historic Places Program.

Kelly Lee.

“Using public art as the way that we want to honor these people … because it’s one of the ways that you can tell very complicated stories in a way that people can understand,” said Kelly Lee, who’s the chief cultural officer for the City of Philadelphia, and the director of the Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy. She explained to Generocity that a public art memorial goes a step further than a simple historical marker in engaging with the Bethel Burial Ground.

“[The memorial] has to celebrate the lives of these 5,000-plus African-Americans,” noted Lee. “It has to inspire people who see it and work and live in [the] Queen Village and Southwark Community to be interested in these stories and [engage] children and neighbors and visitors of all ages. It has to do a lot.”

“Public art is the best format,” she added.

Working in tandem, the city, and the Bethel Burying Ground Commission developed a detailed and drawn-out process, using requirements that were both thoughtful and respectful of those buried at the site. Following a national call for artists in November 2019, the committee selected four teams of finalists, asking each to produce a three-minute video presenting their proposed idea. The groups, led respectively by Muhsana Ali, Shawn Theodore Jackson, Karyn Olivier, and Sara Zewde, then submitted their work to a public comment period, which ended on February 5.

In total, four public meetings were held over Zoom, including the Queen Village Neighborhood Association meeting, wherein interested stakeholders discussed the pros and cons of each piece. The city also ran the videos on local Channel 64 and its public YouTube channel, with each format featuring an introduction from Mayor Jim Kenney. As noted in a recent statement by Lee’s office, the project itself was the culmination of a 10-year process by the Bethel Burial Ground Committee.

Final presentations will be made to the committee on February 17, at which time a winning artist will be chosen. But many of the stakeholders agree that it will be a tough decision.

“There’s something about each of them that I like, that I just really love and it’s going to be a tough decision,” said Rev. Tyler, who, like Lee, noted that artists have a way of inviting people into an experience. “But I do think that the finalists have, in their own ways captured the spirit of what’s important.”

Despite its place as a public memorial to the dead, the Bethel Burial Ground artwork needs to fulfill a role as part of the functional space in Weccacoe Playground, a lingering concession from the financially-strapped congregation some 150 years ago.

As a whole, the committee hopes the site will inspire children to explore its history and people in detail, especially the fight for African Americans to be free Black men and women. But from a hyper-local perspective, each faction has its wants, from a respectful memorial for the 5,000 Black individuals buried there to a useable playground for the children who live there now.

According to many committee members, that clash of desires mixed with strong personalities led to some inevitable tensions. There were just as many concessions as there were agreements, Generocity learned, but most everyone left feeling the experience was a positive one.

“It’s been great, we have such a wide-ranging group of people,” said Duncan Spencer, who’s part of the Friends of Weccacoe Playground. “We have Michael Coard [on the committee] who’s like [a] political activist. He’s like ‘I am the angriest Black man in America.’ It was tough at first but now I love the guy.”

“The people are so wide-ranging that you’re almost always picking up a perspective that you wouldn’t really have,” he continued.

Like his fellow committee members on each side of the discussion, Spencer shares an appreciation for certain aspects of each artist’s submission, although he worries about some work’s ability to withstand the brutality of a 10-year-old at the playground. He believes that practical concerns need to be considered alongside the more profound questions of the day.

On the other hand, Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queen Village Neighborhood Association, the umbrella organization to the Friends of Weccacoe, tells Generocity that she can’t contain her excitement. Whichever submission wins will be amazing, she said.

“It’s been a lot like creating a life,” said Ingersoll. “And you want it to be immediate and you want it right away.”

Rev. Tyler sees a path forward, embracing the past on the way to the future. Queen Village is one of the few naturally diverse neighborhoods in the city, where children of varying economic and racial backgrounds play together in a way that’s not manufactured. He hopes that whatever artwork is chosen to stand in memorial at the Bethel Burial Ground draws people in rather than pushes them away. In other words, he hopes children playing in the park will see the art and use it to learn more about the 5,000 African Americans buried there.

“When the people crossed over the Jordan River and prepared to move into the Promised Land [they] were commanded to pick up 12 stones out of the midst of the Jordan,” said Rev. Tyler, paraphrasing a Biblical quote from the Book of Joshua that he felt was analogous to the situation. “The Lord said to Joshua that in days to come when your children ask you what did these stones mean to you, tell them that these stones are a reminder that on this site, the Lord opened up the Jordan River and we walked over on dry ground.”

“We don’t want their deaths to be in vain,” he continued. “We want [the memorial] to live and have purpose and meaning, not just for today, but into the future.”


Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy

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