Philly to host meeting about historic cemetery

Archaeologists at the site. Possible playground work has created a neighborhood battle.
Archaeologists at the site. Possible playground work has created a neighborhood battle. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 03, 2014

The Nutter administration, faced with rising concerns over postponed renovations to a Queen Village playground that sits atop one of the nation's most historically significant African American cemeteries, will host a public meeting Monday to hear from as many people as possible about the site's future.

The 6:30 p.m. meeting, to be conducted by Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, will be at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Seventh and Arch Streets.

At issue is what should happen to Weccacoe Playground, which covers nearly an acre at Queen and Lawrence Streets, and Bethel Burial Ground, where more than 5,000 African Americans were buried between 1810 and the mid-1860s.

An April 21 e-mail from the Queen Village Neighbors Association called on neighborhood residents to attend the meeting to help forestall efforts "to shut down Weccacoe Recreation Center and possibly the entire playground."

Leading the closure effort, the e-mail claims, is an outside group "calling itself 'Friends of Bethel Burying Ground' - which has no affiliation with Queen Village Neighbors Association or Mother Bethel Church." Should the effort succeed, the e-mail says, it "would take a vital play space away from our neighborhood's children."

The e-mail is signed by association president Jeff Hornstein and Friends of Weccacoe Playground chair Duncan Spencer.

The cemetery, designated last year as a protected historic site by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, lies less than two feet beneath about a third of the playground site.

The neighborhood association wants to proceed with a long-planned renovation of the part of the playground that lies outside the cemetery boundaries. Renovations would include reconfiguration of storm-water management, and refurbishment of equipment and the playground surface.

A second phase of construction, as yet unfunded, involves upgrades to a community building that sits over the cemetery. Building construction in the 1950s and 1960s, and attendant installation of utility lines, disrupted that portion of the cemetery.

The group the association cites is a loose coalition of individuals and organizations, including former Managing Director Joe Certaine, historian Terry Buckalew, and lawyer Michael Coard, cofounder of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) has also called on the city "to rethink its current renovation plans, while taking into consideration the national historic importance of the property."

Certaine, unofficial spokesman for the effort, argues that the city owns the property and should guide the destiny of a site of "enormous national significance."

"We're trying to protect the burial ground," he said, citing sinkholes and a deteriorating 180-year-old water main on Queen as potential threats. Certaine has called for an engineering study and water-main replacement as first steps in protecting the cemetery.

The neighbors association, Certaine asserted, has not reached out to the entire community on the issue, and the city has not exercised its authority over the site.

Hornstein disputed Certaine's characterization.

"No one wants to do anything that would disrupt the burial ground at all," he said. "There's never been any interest in disturbing it."

Hornstein said renovations and plans were modified following rediscovery of the burial ground. Everything was then "ready to go" last year when "a new group emerges out of nowhere to essentially try to shut it down."

A spokesman for the administration said questions would be answered Monday.


ssalisbury@phillynews.com

215-854-5594

@SPSalisbury

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