Headlines of Yore

How the construction of the Vine Street Expressway uncovered lost Black burial grounds

The highway runs over a pair of cemeteries run by the First African Baptist Church, which served a congregation of free Black people in the pre-Civil War era.

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.

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.

Wikimedia Commons
aviwolfmanarent

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.

Want some more? Explore other Headlines of Yore stories.

Let the news come to you

Billy Penn’s free morning newsletter brings you the latest Philly news that everyone will be talking about in your Slack channel.

Nice to see you (instead of a paywall)

Billy Penn’s mission is to provide free, quality information to Philadelphians through our articles and daily newsletter. If you believe local journalism is key to a healthy community, join us!

Did you hear that?

That was the sound of you being informed after reading another BP article. If you believe local information should be free and accessible to all Philadelphians, will you support Billy Penn today?

Informing Philadelphians, one story at a time

Your generous donation brought this article to life. Become a sustaining member today to continue Billy Penn’s work.

Bring a friend into the Billy Penn-verse

Thanks for reading another story! Know a fellow Philadelphian that would appreciate BP? Tell them about our newsletter.