A statue of Richard Allan, founder of Mother Bethel AME Church Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

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Updated March 28

It’s not unusual to find bodies in Philadelphia. Far from it.

As the development boom sweeps through the richly historied city, Philly is becoming known for surprise encounters with skeletons.

In the last few years, burial grounds have been discovered via development projects in Old City, Queen Village and West Philadelphia. In those cases, among many others, the disturbed graves are African American, holding remains of people who migrated north to escape slavery and then were denied entrance into the city’s more formal white cemeteries.

These unexpected discoveries can create a rift between the need for active construction projects to move forward and the responsibility to protect the gravesites with some form of preservation.

There’s a common solution many cities use to avoid this tension: a city-funded archaeologist. Philadelphia doesn’t have one — but it did at one point in the 1980s. Experts say a resurrection of the position is badly needed.

“What we have now, it’s not good enough,” said Terry Buckalew, the historian behind the Bethel Burying Ground Project. “If you just put a professional archaeologist in the process, you would eliminate a lot of these problems. You would eliminate a lot of future damage.”

The issue could rear its head again very soon. Three new rowhomes are slated for a South Philly lot that abuts the former site of John Wesley Methodist Church. Records show the congregation once hosted an African American cemetery in its backyard.

If contractors start digging a foundation, per Philadelphia Archaeological Forum President Doug Mooney, it’s likely they’ll hit bones.

An apartment complex rises at 41st and Chestnut, next to the historic burial ground associated with Monumental Baptist Church Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

‘Stick a shovel in the ground and come up with a body’

For decades, washing the car was a convenient chore for West Philly resident Jesse Wendell Mapson Jr. The now-closed Chestnut Wash ‘n’ Lube was just nine blocks from the Monumental Baptist Church where he serves as pastor. He visited the shop every Saturday for a proper auto shampoo.

Unbeknownst to Mapson, he was standing above the bones of his ancestors.

“I never had any sense of what was under my feet,” Mapson said. “All of that was right there. Everything underneath was crying out, and I didn’t know.”

A historic burial ground was discovered at the car wash site about a year ago. Mooney, of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, connected it with Monumental Baptist, which was located for almost 140 years right across the street at 41st and Ludlow before it moved to a new home in the 1960s.

After the archaeologist called the pastor to tell him the burial site had been approved for the development of a new apartment complex, Mapson felt a tremendous obligation to try to preserve the site where his forebears were laid to rest.

Margaret Jerrido knows the feeling. As archivist at Mother Bethel AME Church, she was among the first to find out when a historian discovered an associated cemetery at Fifth and Queen streets. She was there in person when archaeologists dug up a tombstone.

The only tombstone found at the Bethel Burying Ground, memorializing a woman named Amelia Brown Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Nearly 5,000 bodies were discovered beneath what is now Weccacoe Playground, which was set to undergo renovations — until a historian found a record of burials.

“It was overwhelming to be able to be at this site where you know there are African Americans buried,” Jerrido said. “It’s emotional for me personally, as an African American woman and a member of Mother Bethel.”

Neither case is an outlier. Mid-development, hundreds of bones were found at another construction site at Second and Arch in 2017. In the early ’90s, skeletal remains from about 80 African American bodies were found directly in the way the ongoing Vine Street Expressway construction.

“You can stick a shovel in the ground anywhere in Philadelphia and come up with a body,” Buckalew said.

“It’s enormously common,” said Donna Rilling, a Stony Brook University professor who worked directly with the Monumental Baptist cemetery. “As construction has really gotten going in the last few years, there should be some concern about this.”

Rilling estimates the city has only uncovered about a quarter of its burial grounds so far.

Respect for African American pioneers

Most of us would probably argue it’s wrong to desecrate anyone’s grave, but when it comes to the generation in question — African Americans who died in the mid-to-late-1800s — many consider it especially egregious.

The forgotten black bones belonged to a generation of former slaves — either those who escaped, or those who became emancipated.

Buckalew is the Philadelphia historian who first discovered records of the Bethel Burying Ground — and he’s extensively researched the lives of the entombed. He found records of entrepreneurs, chefs, bakers, educators, funeral directors. He found ministers who set up Underground Railroad stops, helping even more slaves escape to freedom.

A third of those buried in the cemetery were infants.

Also entombed there, the historian said, are many relatives of Caroline LeCount. She was the first black woman to be certified to teach in Philly public schools. She knew Greek and Latin, she was a math scholar, a musician, an expert debater. She was also Octavius Catto‘s fiance. (She herself was buried at Eden Cemetery in Delaware County.)

“There was a thriving black community there at the time,” Mapson said. “You can just imagine how important that church was to black people, who found in it a place of safety and spiritual nurturing.”

Mother Bethel AME Church on Lombard near Sixth Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Segregated cemeteries and a lack of records

So why wasn’t anyone aware of these graves before a developer made a deal?

The answer is rooted in America’s discriminatory past. Back in the 1800s, when African American people first started relocating to Philadelphia en masse, segregation was in full effect.

Black Philadelphians, per Buckalew, weren’t allowed to be buried in public cemeteries. That left them with two options: They could spend eternity in potter’s fields, reserved for the lower-class citizens, or they could quietly establish their own burial grounds — often associated with their own churches.

“It was a time when blacks could not be buried in white cemeteries, and really had to fight and struggle for parcels of land just to bury their dead,” Mapson said.

Rev. Jesse Wendell Mapson, Jr. is pastor of the Monumental Baptist Church in West Philly. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

The records are few and far between for both potter’s fields and private black cemeteries, as they were not officially documented by the city.

Hundreds of years later, that absence of documentation has become problematic. Philadelphia officials don’t have an accurate visualization of the city’s burial grounds — and there’s no one employed actively looking for them.

Experts say many graves have likely already been desecrated by developers — and without implementing some preventative measures, the city will keep losing its history.

“I think a lot of damage has already been done,” Buckalew said. “Back in the early 1900s or even into the 1960s, if a contractor or developer came across bones, they’d just throw them in a dump truck.”

New swings at Weccacoe Playground were carefully placed so they did not interfere with the 5,000 African Americans thought to be in the burial ground nearby Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

So hire a city archaeologist? 

As it stands, the city’s approach is only reactive. Sometimes when developers find burial grounds, they loop in historians or archaeologists to determine next steps. Other times, they keep it hush-hush and get rid of their findings.

To fix this problem, the city should become proactive, preservationists say — although some developers dispute their suggested method.

Last December, Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force recommended the addition of an archaeologist to the Philadelphia Historical Commission staff.

Cities like Boston and New York each already have one. So, too, did Philadelphia before it cut its Historical Commission staff in half starting in the late 1980s. Historian Carmen Weber Creamer was the only one to ever fill the position, and when she left the role, it remained vacant.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Buckalew said. “Almost all major cities, even modest-sized cities, have an archaeology department within city government, or a city archaeologist on staff.”

In Buckalew’s vision, a publicly funded archaeologist would map burial grounds and other historic artifacts that dominate the city. If a development were proposed near one, it’d be flagged — and be either approved or rejected by the city archaeologist.

The garages at 729-33 Pemberton Street are up for development — and they’re adjacent to a possible historic burial ground Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

From a developer’s perspective, OCF Realty founder Ori Feibush said he thought having a comprehensive map of potential burial sites could be helpful. He also said he supported the idea of archaeologist review during the planning stage.

However, to have every single construction project require on-site supervision “would be a burden,” said Feibush, who himself developed a lot in Frankford that was rumored to have bones underneath. “There’s only so many places that have cemeteries.”

Per Historical Commission spokesperson Paul Chrystie, Mayor Kenney hasn’t yet reviewed the recommendation, but he intends to soon.

In the meantime, Mooney has volunteered his own time to create an interactive map of the burial grounds he’s found. Hopefully, these makeshift documents will become popular enough that developers start consulting them before they buy land.

Buckalew has undertaken a similar project. He’s created a blog to memorialize the people buried at Mother Bethel — with personal details to humanize what’s left of them.

“We’re a long way away,” Buckalew said, “and in Philadelphia it’s always uphill.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...