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There may not be a living, breathing American place that so poetically captures the moment in which the nation finds itself as Philadelphia’s historic Fair Hill Burial Ground.
The North Philly cemetery was a backdrop for the movements for people of color’s civil rights and for women’s suffrage, with advocates who fought for both causes buried there. On the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, Fair Hill provides a reminder that the anniversary commemorates what was a celebratory occasion for some, but confirmation of a bitterly disappointing reality for many others.
The nonprofit that maintains the site, Historic Fair Hill, will pull on its past to highlight this connection — and discrepancy — at a free outdoor play and community event.
“Under the Bonnet” will run from 3 to 4 p.m. and again from 4 to 5 p.m. on two upcoming Saturdays (Aug. 22 at Fair Hill and Aug. 29 at the Arch Street Meeting House.) The show is about Lucretia Mott, James Mott and Frederick Douglass, with a plotline that explains how “the women’s rights movement came straight out of the abolition of slavery movement,” said Executive Director Jean Warrington.
Though it had a rough time in the 1990s, Fair Hill is a special place, with a history of giving back to its community.
Lucretia Mott is buried there. She stood out among her peers, who include famed New York suffragist Susan B. Anthony, for her staunch commitment to abolitionism alongside feminist activism. Also there are Harriet Forten Purvis, cofounder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and husband Robert Purvis, a Black businessman who dedicated his life to abolition work and has been called “president” of the Underground Railroad.
The lush field at Germantown Avenue and Cambria Street also holds graves of many formerly enslaved Philadelphians. Fair Hill was one of the city’s first racially integrated cemeteries.
Today, the burial ground offers a nearly five-acre oasis for residents of Fairhill, the surrounding neighborhood. In addition to its four community gardens, employees and volunteers connected to the historic site have restored nearby school libraries, run school partnership literacy programs and hired neighbors as bilingual educators.
Fair Hill was founded in 1703 as a Quaker Friends’ meetinghouse and graveyard, which still provides inspiration.
“This historic site, burial ground of great abolitionists and early women’s rights activists, is a real beacon for us now,” said Warrington, the director. “So we asked ourselves, what would those ancestors be doing right now in Fairhill? They were active in education, in promoting equality and justice.”
A gift from Penn to his fellow Quakers
The cemetery got its start more than 300 years ago, thanks to Philadelphia’s semi-problematic fave William Penn.
In the early 1700s, Penn left the land to Fair Hill founder George Fox, a fellow Quaker. Its ostensible use was to be for horse stables, a meetinghouse and a burial ground. Documents show it was also intended as a “playground for children of the town, garden to plant with physical plants [and] for lads and lasses to…learn to make oils and ointments.”
At first, the grounds were well kept, and they would stay that way for more than a century. In 1896, the City of Philadelphia officially celebrated Arbor Day at the picturesque park.
Newspaper mentions of actual burials there are scant. “It was very quiet for a long time,” Warrington said. “People got buried there and they were quiet about it.
Historic Fair Hill maintains a database of the more than 3k people interred at the site from the 1840s onward. The last person buried there was laid to rest nearly a century and a half later.
In addition to Lucretia Mott and Harriet Forten Purvis, some other notable Philadelphians at Fair Hill include:
- Edward Parrish, a founder and the first president of Swarthmore College
- Abolitionist Sarah Pugh, who also started and ran her own school
- Abby Kimber, Pugh’s cousin, a women’s rights and anti-slavery activist
Their headstones are simple and similar, made of nondescript arches of marble, after traditional Quaker ideals.
An unequal implementation of women’s suffrage
Lucretia Mott, a Massacussets native who moved to Philadelphia, was one of the five women who organized the first Seneca Falls convention in 1848. Mott co-wrote the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, outlining the purpose of the political gathering of women.
The convention is sometimes touted as the catalyst for the passage of the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote nationwide. But that’s only part of the story.
State and local governments swiftly enacted measures designed to keep women of color and poor women out of the ballot box. The 19th didn’t outlaw poll taxes or literacy tests, two measures governments put in place after the 15th Amendment had extended the vote to Black men decades earlier.
Indigenous women wouldn’t even begin to be able to vote until the Indian Citizen Act of 1924, and the last state extended the right to vote for Indigenous people in 1962.
Black people didn’t gain the full legal right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and still face voter suppression today.
As part of the “Under the Bonnet” performance at the burial ground this weekend, students who work with Fair Hill will read their essays about Lucretia Mott, Harriet Purvis and another woman of color who inspires them.
Desecrated graves during the crack epidemic
The thriving greenspace Fair Hill visitors see today is a recent iteration.
Warrington’s organization, which helped bring it to fruition, is officially known as Fair Hill Burial Ground Corp. It bought the lot at 2901 Germantown Ave. from Ephesians Baptist Church in 1994. The latter had acquired the property from the Quakers in the 1980s — and promptly let the sacred space go to hell.
For about a decade in the late 80s and early 90s, Mott’s and other’s graves were repeatedly desecrated as the crack-cocaine epidemic swept through the area.
In a 1990 Inquirer article that highlighted the burial ground’s disrepair, one fed-up neighbor explained. “This cemetery is a hotel,” the neighbor complained at the time. “You can spend the night here. You can do drugs here. You can do anything you want.”
That same year, nearby residents started to rally. They organized cleanups and beautifications. In 1999, Fair Hill Burial Ground was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“There wasn’t any news,” Warrington observed, “until the cleanup in the 1990s.”
Providing green space — and helping others create one
More than two decades later, Warrington and her team of 15 employees and many more community volunteers keep the site’s community spirit alive.
While the Fairhill neighborhood continues to be affected by drug use, poverty and gun violence, the burial ground and community gardens were last year officially recognized by local religious leaders as zones of peace.
“It’s very encouraging,” Warrington said. “Anybody works hard and it’s wonderful to have somebody appreciate what you do. And it made us think…how can we extend that?”
The answer: by helping other people bring peaceful green space to their areas. Historic Fair Hill assisted several people and one organization in starting their own gardens this year. And Fair Hill volunteers have planted 110 trees in the last year through the Tree Tenders program, Warrington said.
The nonprofit does a lot. It raised money to restore school libraries in nearby Julia DeBurgos and John F. Hartranft schools, with plans to bring the program to Cramp and Potter Thomas schools next. It offers mural tours and burial grounds tours, though those have been suspended by the pandemic.
Just as important as the programs and education, in the middle of a concrete jungle, Fair Hill provides a green getaway.
“Many of our kids have a nature deficit disorder,” Warrington said. “Seeking kids in the garden…when they just are taking care of a plant and picking tomatoes or picking the melons, they just love it.”