The Beloved Community, Philadelphia

 

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:  10 years ago,   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.

 

 

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Terry Buckalew on the right  being interviewed by the film-maker Lou Massiah on June 12, 2018 on the grounds of the graveyard

 

 

 

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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. 

 

 

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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.

 

DSC00004 (1)Fundraising sign at the playground taken in 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.

 

 

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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.

 

I heard one child, clearly coached, and 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 side:   black Philadelphians and some whites also who want the cemetery protected as a sacred place with historical markers to explain its history.

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. 

 

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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 unovered in the archaeological dig organized to validate Terry Buckalew’s findings

 

 

A coalition of 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.

 

 

Cemetery 1-2Cemetery 1-3Members 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.

 

 

2016-2018 

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.

 

 

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He spoke of his total ignorance, until his 40s of the history of African Americans in Philadelphia.  As though they had never existed.

 

 

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 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 75% because there remain the annoyed and those who say that a lot of fuss was made here about ‘dead people’.   

And a part of the 25% was the very savvy use made by members of the African-American community and their allies of possibilities laid out by law. 

 

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.

Philadelphia:  a city that made a nation.  And precious to us for all those who have contributed.

 

 

 

One thought on “The Beloved Community, Philadelphia

  1. Les autorités d’un pays ont bien du mal à parler de l’esclavage et du rôle qu’il a joué dans l’histoire du pays.
    C’est la même chose en France.

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