By Pat Loeb
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia officials, Queen Village community groups and members of Mother Bethel Church have been debating how to proceed with a planned renovation of the Weccacoe Playground at 5th and Catherine Streets since the discovery, last year, of a historic African-American cemetery beneath it.
Now, a new group has weighed in — one with special standing in the matter: descendants of the cemetery’s founder, Bishop Richard Allen.
“Since we had the family here for Thanksgiving, I said, ‘Let us compile a letter that reflects our stand as a family,'” says Yvonne Studevan, a 7th generation descendant of Allen, the freed slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal church in America and its flagship, Mother Bethel, in 1787.
Studevan lives in Athens, Georgia, but retains a deep interest in her ancestor and his church. She tells KYW Newsradio she is often invited to speak about Allen to churches, libraries and women’s groups. She credits her aunt, Catharine Dockens, now 92, with preserving much of his history as an archivist for Mother Bethel until she too moved to Athens.
One chapter in the church history that had long been forgotten, though, was that Allen purchased land across the street from the church in 1810 for use as a burial ground for black Philadelphians, who were restricted from white cemeteries and from burial within city limits at the time.
The cemetery fell into disuse and the land was sold to the city for the playground around 1900, its previous use erased by time.
Then, a few years ago, local historian Terry Buckalew found a reference to the burial ground and began exploring.
An archeological dig undertaken over the summer, in advance of planned renovation, found the remains of some 5,000 people beneath the playground.
The discovery touched off the ongoing discussion about how best to preserve the burial ground and Mother Bethel pastor Mark Tyler contacted Studevan to get her input, a request she took seriously.
“We had descendants from the 6th generation, the 7th generation, the 8th generation and the 9th generation, at the (Thanksgiving) table,” she says. “We even contacted relatives in California who couldn’t be here so it was a real consensus.”
Tyler was delighted to receive their letter and shared it at a recent meeting on the matter.
“I thought it was very well done and to come from the family of descendants was so important to us in this conversation,” he tells KYW Newsradio. “We’ve heard from everyone else about ‘the ancestors,’ but these are truly their ancestors.”
The letter asks that the bodies remain undisturbed and that they be commemorated by a historical marker at the site. But the family is happy to have the playground above them.
“We’d like it to attract tourists and still provide a spot for the children to continue to play,” says Studevan.
That puts everyone on the same page, according to Deputy Mayor Mike DiBerardinis. “It sets the stage for us to move forward,” he says.
Tyler says he’ll also take one additional step recommended by the family.
“We’ll file a nomination for the Bethel Burial Ground to go on the National Historic Registry,” he says, “to insure future protection, long beyond our time, and we are committed that this story, now that it has been found again, will never be lost.”