New group to challenge Mother Bethel graveyard plan

Michael Coard: A children's playground and a hallowed cemetery "cannot coexist and will not coexist."
Michael Coard: A children's playground and a hallowed cemetery "cannot coexist and will not coexist."
Posted: December 07, 2013

The Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, an activist group that played a shaping role in the decade-long effort to commemorate the President's House on Independence Mall, has now turned its attention to the recently rediscovered Mother Bethel Burial Ground at Queen and Lawrence Streets.

In a widely circulated e-mail this week, the group noted that it has formed a committee - NOT Over Our Dead Bodies! - and called for citizens to join in protecting ancestral and historical memory.

Mother Bethel Church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets, will convene a public meeting Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. to discuss plans for commemoration, and the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) has urged people to attend.

The burial ground was acquired by Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1810 and was in use until the mid-1860s. It then fell into disrepair and the land was eventually sold to the city.

Recent archaeological studies have estimated that the remains of approximately 5,000 people lie beneath a portion of what is now Weccacoe Playground.

Those buried there include pillars of the city's early black community, as well as untold numbers of the poor and destitute. About a third of the graves are children's.

Michael Coard, a founder of ATAC, promised to challenge city and neighborhood plans to rehab the playground, now scheduled to begin next year. The burial ground, which emerged from the foggy past this year, thanks to work by independent historian Terry Buckalew, was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places last summer.

"A fun-and-games children's playground and a solemn and hallowed cemetery cannot coexist and will not coexist," Coard said Thursday, "at least not without a loud, public, confrontational, and sustained holy war."

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel, who is convening the public meeting, said he is not surprised by strongly held views.

"It is certainly clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what's right to do in this particular case," he said Thursday. He added that the point of the meeting is to find the best way to "honor the ancestors" and ensure that "they did not live their lives in vain."

The city owns the land, and the playground renovations are being spearheaded by the Queen Village Neighbors Association and the Friends of Weccacoe. Officials have said they will defer to Mother Bethel's desires regarding commemoration.

The cemetery lies beneath about a third of the three-quarter-acre playground.


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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