The Beloved Community is a concept first used by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, adopted and given wide credence by Martin Luther King.
The Beloved Community is a goal that can be achieved by those committed to the philosophy and methods of nonviolence: that is by the reconciliation of adversaries co-operating together with goodwill.
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 (after Christina of Sweden whose subjects colonized first a sliver of what became Philadelphia.
Terry Buckalew on the right being interviewed by the film-maker Lou Massiah on June 12, 2018 on the grounds of the graveyard
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, Polish.
1810: Mr. Buckalew’s research showed that Richard Allen and the trustees of Mother Bethel AME Church, the oldest black church in the US, bought a piece of land just south of South Street 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 and the first to have been sanctified.
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.
Late 1960s: Queen Village from its foundation was a working class section of the city of both black and white Philadelphians.
Massive gentrification followed the city’s renovation of South Street in the late 1960s. Now the village, 82% white, is affluent and a coveted neighbourhood.
The Dispute and Its Conclusion
2008-2013: The Powers That Be in the Queen Village Neighborhood Association obtained funding for and started planning a community center and upgraded playground to occupy the entire space of which the cemetery takes up one third.
The community center was to have state of the art equipment for children to learn and adults to use.
Fundraising sign at the playground. August 2015
The cemetery, while it was to be commemorated in some way, would remain invisible under cement and swings and a new community building.
2013: This larger effort was halted by the successful application to place this graveyard on the city’s register of historic sites. Fundraising for the renovation of the playground continued.
Old Trumpet vine encompasses a part of the playground
2013: Discussions – sometimes very sharp – began
On one side were 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.
On the other, those who wanted the sanctity of the dead recognized and black Philadelphians memorialized.
The issue has always been one of class, of course, as well as of race; because the buried are ‘poor black folk’. A significant number were slaves at the time of their burial.
Sensitive considerations would undoubtedly 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 north. But they weren’t.
The poor count for very little. Irrespective of the colour of their skin. Not just here. Not just in the United States.
Archaeologists complete their excavation of the Mother Bethel AME Church gravesite under Weccacoe Playground on Queen Street. (Emma Lee/WHY
Mr. Buckalew continued his researches and published online the names of 2400 of the dead buried in this cemetery and their histories to the extent known.
A gravestone uncovered in the archaeological dig organized to validate Terry Buckalew’s findings
Young African-Americans, organized in a coalition called Avenging the Ancestors (ATTAC) adopted tactics which they had learned in their long and successful negotiation with the Federal Government to make of President George Washington’s Philadelphia house a didactic memorial to the role of slaves in the early Republic.
George Washington’s Philadelphia house sits in front of Independence Hall, the most famous of the country’s historic sites; and the history it tells is a revelation to its thousands of visitors.
ATTAC organized demonstrations.
Members of the African American community re-sacralized the graveyard in the autumn of 2015
2016: Federal designation for a historic site was granted.
It is difficult to touch, change, pull down, build over a site so designated.
The City bureaucracy has taken the burial site under its purview.
The building over the site will be torn down.
The water serving that building and dripping into the graves has been cut off.
Fundraising will begin to fund an art memorial.
On June 12, 2018 Jim Kenney, the mayor of the city, marked the site’s designation as a memorial to these particular dead.
He spoke of his total ignorance, until his 40s of the history of African Americans in Philadelphia. As though they had never existed.
The gravesite boundary marked by flowers and candles on June 12, 2018
Finally done. Ten years.
To what extent was this a example of the workings of the Beloved Community?
Perhaps 85% because there remain the annoyed and those who say that a lot of fuss was made here about ‘dead people’.
Still and all: the poor dead, African Americans, many of them slaves at the time of burial, have now been taken into the Beloved Community here in Philadelphia.
The Beloved Community: everyone and everyone who built and are still building Philadelphia. Everyone.
Philadelphia: a city that made a nation. And precious to us for all those who have contributed.
On Thursday, August 2, 2018, the news for most of the day was that a little black doll had been found hanging from a line above the Mother Bethel AME Burial Ground/Queen Village playground.
Towards dusk, outraged adults gathered with children in the play-ground for a chalk-in to express their support and love for all members of the community.
Well before dusk it became known that video tape of the playground was being reviewed; the head pastor of Mother Bethel AME had been contacted and had come to the playground; that the mayor had contacted him to offer his support, that the police chief of the city had come to the playground again for support, and that the City councillor representing this part of the city came to the playground and stayed for a while.
Also that a number of young boys – later reported by the press to be ‘two boys’ – black and white, and ‘under 13’ had owned up to having hung the hanged doll.
The doll was said to be knocking about the playground for a few days. The boys said they found the twine on the roof of a building in the playground.
They wanted only to ‘spook’ people with this ‘spooky’ doll.
The head pastor of the Mother Bethel AME brought this event to a close.
He spoke to the boys. He was sure that they did not understand how their action would be interpreted. It was a ‘teachable’ moment, he said.
And what do I know?
I know all these events took place.
I know that there is more than one interpretation of what happened here. The difference will not vary strictly by race. But somewhat.
And a certain shivering darkness in the hearts of some of us is holding:
“Chills me to my bones when I go deep” in the words of a neighbour.
And that nothing more will be said.
November 4, 2023
The outgoing mayor of the city, Jim Kenney,
and the artist – Karyn Olivier –
whose proposal has been accepted to mark this site of the burial of the approximately 5000 parishioners of Mother Bethel AME Church attended a brief ceremony.
We await now the building of the memorial.