This American city hosts the site of one of the oldest black graveyards from the 1800s

Nduta Waweru June 09, 2018
Photo: Philly Inquirer

Many people across Philadelphia do not know they live on what is considered some of African American oldest burial grounds.

A map indicates skeletal remains of African-American individuals associated with the earliest free African-American Baptist congregation in Philadelphia.

Map from University Archives and Record Center

The gravesite, on which a car wash, Chestnut Wash ‘n’ Lube was built, also extends to property owned by the University of Pennsylvania.

Archaeological map recording the skeletal remains of 89 African-American individuals associated with the earliest free African-American Baptist congregation in Philadelphia. Photo: Philly Archeology

According to the Director of the University Archives and Record Center Mark Frazier Lloyd, the graveyard could have been closed in the 1920s or the 1940s.

“It’s entirely reasonable that when [the site] was closed as a cemetery, that all of the human remains were removed at that time – say in the 1920s or the 1940s. Now if that’s not true, if they just paved it over, then the present-day owners of the land have a problem. A very big problem.”

The president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum Doug Mooney posits that the burial site was purchased in 1826 by the African Friends to Harmony as open land. It was then used regularly for most of the rest of the 19th century as a resting place for African Americans.

“These [bodies] are in many ways the founders of the black community in West Philadelphia. They deserve to be respectfully treated. These are people. They are not trash that should be dug up and thrown in a landfill somewhere.”

Graveyard at 4125 Chestnut St. is marked on the 1895 Bromley’s Atlas of Philadelphia.

Concerns were raised that the excavations carried out to create room for apartments would disrupt the burial grounds especially if the bodies are still intact.

In 2016, construction workers hit a number of coffins and bones in one of the Philly streets. These graves dated back to the 1700s and were connected to the First Baptist Church.

The archaeologists hope that the new maps would help avoid a repeat.

They also add that it is not surprising to find more graveyards.

There’s probably no way that we will know or be able to map accurately every cemetery that ever existed in Philadelphia, in part because we know there are an unknown number of small family cemeteries that may never have been mapped anywhere.

The Queen Village meeting hall is among the buildings in Philadelphia to be pulled down to make room for a new memorial. The  Bethel Burying Ground, on which the meeting hall is built, was bought in 1810 because African American cemeteries were not allowed in Philadelphia.

A headstone from the early 1800’s, along with other artefacts uncovered at the site of the old Mother Bethel Burial ground


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