Homo sapiens is the only species
to suffer psychological exile.
—E. O. Wilson
2008: Terry Buckalew, a researcher of the history of Philadelphia, discovered that at least 5000 black Philadelphians were buried in the early 19th century in a block in the South Philadelphia neighbourhood now called Queen Village.
1682: Queen Village is a real-estate appellation for the northern part of South Philadelphia. It borders the Delaware River a little south of the point at which William Penn stepped from his ship on the Delaware River onto land. The autochtonous Lenni Lenape called it Weccaco. The English immigrants who followed William Penn called it Southwark.
Queen Village is south of South Street, the southern boundary of William Penn’s city. Working class people have lived here almost to the present day in the traditional brick ‘trinities’ and row houses made of two layers of brick and in which we still live. Swedish, German, British, African Americans, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Irish.
1950s: After the decline of manufacturing in the city from 1950 onwards, this part of the city fell into the disrepair and near-slum status which overtook whole swathes of the city.
Late 1960s: Queen Village was a working class section of the city of both black and white Philadelphians until massive gentrification followed the city’s renovation of South Street in the late 1960s. Now the village is quite affluent, almost completely white and a coveted neighbourhood for young families.
1810: Mr. Buckalew’s research shows that Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel AME Church, the oldest black church in the US, bought a piece of land outside the city limits to bury parishioners. African Americans could not be buried in sanctified ground within the city limits. There are potters’ fields throughout the city covering the bones of poor black and poor white Philadelphians.
This was the first burial ground owned solely by Black Americans.
1860s: the cemetery became abandoned and untended.
1889: the city bought the cemetery from Mother Bethel AME Church and turned it into a communal garden called Weccaccoe Park.
1910: the city built a playground in the park. Hiding behind magnificent, one-hundred year old trumpet vines, you can discreetly watch the tennis players at play.
2008: Terry Buckalew uncovered evidence of the existence of the cemetery.
Present: In the past few years, the Powers That Be in the Queen Village Neighborhood Association have obtained funding for and started planning a community center and playground to occupy the entire space of which the cemetery takes up one third. The playground is to be reconstructed. The community center is to have state of the art equipment for children to learn and adults to use.
The cemetery, while it will be commemorated in some way, would remain invisible under cement and swings and a shiny new community building.
Discussions – sometimes sharp – began publicly in 2013.
On one side are the Powers That Be in the village and many parents and teachers whose children and charges use the playground. Also people who are not parents. Also some members of the black community. I heard one child, excited to be able to press for her playground at a meeting with the city’s managing director say: I want to play with the dead. A white Philadelphian said she would be happy if people danced on her grave.
On the other: black Philadelphians and some whites also who want the cemetery protected as a sacred place with historical markers to explain its history.
The issue is one of class, of course, as well as of race; because the buried are ‘poor black folk’. Sensitive considerations would have been articulated if Richard Allen, the founder of Mother Bethel AME (1795) or his wife Sarah were buried in this cemetery and not in the Mother Bethel AME Church a few blocks west.
The noise has died away. It is my understanding that the issue is on the mayor’s desk because of its sensitivities. American Blacks outnumber Whites in the city but not by much.
Mr. Buckalew has continued his researches and to date has published online the names of 2400 of the dead buried in this cemetery and their histories to the extent known.
Members of the Afro-American community held a resacralization ceremony in the summer of 2014.
I have lived for a quarter century one minute walk away from this cemetery.
The whole city is sacred ground to me. All the cities in which I have lived are sacred ground to me for the vast human effort they represent towards individual human autonomy. Among other necessary things.
I am entirely in the camp of those who want the cemetery preserved and memorialized; not covered again with cement.
We know that our species has been burying our dead with ceremony and ritual for at least 40,000 years. I don’t have to jump into unknown territory to suggest that we may be playing with psychological fire if we decide that burial rituals and burial places, the ones which exist and the ones which we forgot and have rediscovered, are not sacred.
Also: the dead are the least powerful of all human communities. We have an obligation to them. We have an obligation to those who, during their lifetimes and at their deaths had such little earthly power and status that they were buried, Christians in hallowed ground, outside the boundaries of their city. The City of Brotherly Love.
Also: the cemetery underlies about a third of the playground. I cannot understand why the cemetery cannot be preserved and the remaining two thirds be used for other purposes.
In other words, I am flabbergasted.