The construction of the Vine Street Expressway was stalled for decades before it uncovered two cemeteries owned by the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia.

Each day 55,000 cars drive down the center of Philadelphia — right over the excavated remains of two important cemeteries.

The Vine Street Expressway bisects Philly to connect I-95 and I-76, and its history is mired in controversies. The idea for the highway sprouted in 1930s, it spent decades with half-finished construction as various Chinatown community groups opposed it.

The highway opened in 1983, but digging for the expressway revealed that it would cover a pair of cemeteries located at intersection of 8th and Vine Streets and 10th and Vine Streets. Both belonged to the congregation of the First African Baptist Church, which served a collection of free Black worshippers from 1809 until 1841, when it moved.

Until the expressway dig, there had been almost no burial sites that highlighted the lives of free Black people living in the antebellum North. In total, the digs uncovered the remains of 225 people, spawning a documentary, evidence of West African burial practices, and a look at the hardships faced by free Black people.

The 225 bodies are now housed at a cemetery in Delaware Country. This thread unpacks how it happened.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...