Philadelphia plans memorial for historic Bethel Burying Ground

Bethel Burying Ground

Archaeologists complete their excavation of the Mother Bethel AME Church gravesite under Weccacoe Playground on Queen Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Forgotten long ago, the Bethel Burying Ground has rested beneath South Philadelphia’s Weccacoe Recreation Center for years. The 19th-century cemetery for African-Americans was established when blacks were not permitted to be buried within the city limits.

Tuesday, Mayor Jim Kenney announced the beginning of a process to create a memorial for the historic site.

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Started in 1810 by Richard Allen, the founder of Mother Bethel AME Church, the cemetery was located in what was then known as Southwark Township — a majority-black community just outside the city.

“Several thousand graves under there were individuals [who] … were sort of the founding generations of the nation’s largest and most important African-American populations in the 18th- and 19th-centuries,” said Margot Berg, a member of the Bethel Burying Ground Committee.

Due to financial difficulties, the church was unable to maintain the burial ground and the property was eventually sold to the city.

Many of the graves are covered by a layer of asphalt where the Weccacoe rec center now sits.

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Tuesday, the mayor and community groups placed luminaries around the boundaries of the old cemetery and began taking public input on creating a memorial for the site. It marks the start of a multiyear process.

“The federal government recognizes this site as having significance to all Americans, not just Philadelphians,” Berg said. “So it’s really an important project.”

In 2013, the burial ground was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic places; in 2016, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic places.

Eventually, the recreation center will be demolished and the memorial will take its place.

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