PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — An 19-century African American Burial Ground discovered beneath a Center City playground has been named to the National Register of Historic Places. This honor comes just as community groups work to compromise on long debated renovations.
The remains of an estimated 5,000 people are believed to lie beneath Weccacoe Playground which boasts a decaying tennis court and community building. City officials and those in the community wanted to upgrade the space – but some stakeholders feared renovations would disturb the bones.
“Consensus was made around allowing the city to go forward,” says Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME church, which one owned of the burial ground.
He says Mayor Jim Kenney and city officials met with all concerned parties Monday and, as a group, the stakeholders agreed the community children deserved a playground. Tyler says the consensus is construction will be allowed on the portion of the playground that does not touch the bones. Historian Terry Buckalew rediscovered the Bethel Burying Ground several years ago and says what remains is what do with the tennis court and building with bathrooms that sits atop the burial ground.
“Everyone is committed to having the playground renovated in a dignified and respectful manner,” he says, “We will just to hammer out the details.”
Buckalew says the Friends of Bethel Burying Ground Coalition have asked the city to have an archaeologist on sight during the renovations.
Lauren Leonard, President of the Queen Village Neighbors Association said in an email, “QVNA is glad to see meetings about the renovation of Weccacoe Playground continuing under the new administration. We remain strongly supportive of the recommendations for the Bethel Burial Ground put forth by the Roz Group in its August 2014 report – “that there exist numerous opportunities to create a commemorative experience that can satisfy the needs and concerns of the various stakeholders.”
Attorney Michael Coard, founder of Avenging Our Ancestors, says he is opposes a playground “being on top of or even next to this hallowed ground. Also the toilets above these historic bodies must be removed.”
“The conversations we’ve had with all the various stakeholders were very productive. My administration is committed to supporting the memorialization and/or interpretation of the burial ground, and we’ll continue to have conversations with the Historical Commission and the other stakeholders about the best way to do that. The playground site will be completely separate from the burial ground and plans for construction are continuing to proceed. A construction date has not yet been set,” said Mayor Kenney.