The remains of more than 8,000 of our Black brothers and sisters from the 1800s are still being desecrated in the historic Bethel Burying Ground (BBG) cemetery under a trash dump and city-owned playground at Queen and Lawrence. But Mayor Kenney was not and still is not emotionally moved to publicly condemn it or to donate a single penny.
I should mention that I like the Mayor. I even voted for him. I believe he’s a good man with good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And, in the case of BBG, he is- through his inaction- telling Black folks and their ancestors to go to hell.
Accordingly, in 1869, they allowed unused portions of the cemetery grounds to be rented in a 10-year lease for wagon storage to Barnabas Bartol, a white man who operated a sugar refinery. There was explicit language in the lease mandating that those “who are interred … are to be allowed to remain there undisturbed.” Despite that, as reported by a local newspaper in 1872, the refinery (along with other white businesses) repeatedly “dumps rubbish … over the graves.” This caused the cemetery to deteriorate to such an extent that it could no longer operate as intended. As a result, it was sold in 1889 to the white city government that ignored it for a few more years before transforming it into a city garden in 1901 and attaching a city playground around seven years later. The Department of Recreation took official responsibility of the park in 1910.
I would love to take credit for this scholarly research. But I can’t, so I won’t. The credit goes to local historian Terry Buckalew. He uncovered this historic treasure while researching the life of civil/voting rights giant Octavius Catto. You can read Buckalew’s enlightening information at bethelburyinggroundproject.com.
In July, Buckalew, U.S. Colored Troops/Buffalo Soldier reenactor and former City Managing Director Joe Certaine, Congressman Bob Brady’s Communications Director Karen Warrington, and yours truly- as representatives of a group called Friends of Bethel Burying Ground (FBBG)- met with top-level city officials. One of the key issues raised by us during that meeting concerned an engineering impact study.
Buckalew made it very clear that such a study was absolutely essential to determine if the dilapidated cinder block building located over thousands of African-American graves is a potential threat to the fragile human remains only inches below the building’s foundation. He also pointed out that BBG has been recognized by city, state, and federal agencies as a national treasure. He continued by noting that the building in question appears to be settling into precious soil below and could cause catastrophic damage, which is why the engineering study must be quickly undertaken.
The city officials agreed at that meeting that the study should be done. It began in October and was completed in November after which a report was written in late December. But, for some strange (and possibly malicious) reason, they refuse to release any information regarding it. When Buckalew filed a “Right To Know” request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, Mayor Kenney’s lawyers indefensibly denied that request a few weeks ago.
Although the Mayor is refusing to work with the Black descendants of those buried at this historic site, he is embracing the white carpetbaggers, such as the Queen Village Neighbors Association (QVNA), who have recently moved into that area. In fact, he and other White City officials have empowered QVNA to make the decisions regarding this hallowed Black burial site.
As Buckalew stated on April 14, “The Mayor’s decision to abandon the inclusion of the African-American community in the decision-making process to determine the future of this sacred ground is unprecedented in this country. The Rev. Richard Allen founded this cemetery in 1810 as a vital part of the plan for African-Americans to take back control of their lives from the white city leaders that believed in apartheid even after death. It appears that we have come full circle and again need to take action to preserve that heritage.”
Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) is working with FBBG by forming its “Grave Injustice” committee to avenge our buried ancestors. In preparation for an upcoming City Council budget hearing, ATAC will meet on Monday, April 17 at 7 p.m. at Zion Baptist Church, Broad and Venango. The meeting is open to the public and everyone is invited. For more info, call (215) 552-8751.