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Map from University Archives and Record Center

Earlier this year, a historical African American burial ground from the 1800s was discovered under Penn property in West Philadelphia. Now experts are saying human remains are likely still beneath the lot, and Penn officials say they are in the process of hiring an outside expert to advise in the appropriate next steps for the University to take.

University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the University is “currently researching the history of the site" as Penn was "unaware of its history" when it was purchased in 1986 from a car and truck dealership.

"We have recently been made aware that a parking lot owned by the University at 4125 Chestnut Street served as an African American burial ground from 1895 to 1910," the statement read. "We are currently conducting research into the site, and in the process of hiring an expert consultant in urban archeology, with a speciality in former burial grounds. Given the city's long history, this dynamic is not new to Philadelphia, and we are fortunate to have local experts who are well versed in suggesting best practices for next steps."

MacCarthy did not respond to requests asking when the consultant would be hired, what the University's hiring process looks like, and whether the University has any candidates in mind.

Facilities and Real Estate Services spokesperson Heidi Wunder declined to comment further on the status of the site, referring inquiries back to MacCarthy's previous statement. 

Credit: Alice Goulding

This past January, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum discovered the existence of the African Friends of Harmony Cemetery at 41st and Chestnut streets. The location of the oldest African American burial ground in West Philadelphia, it extends underneath the land Penn purchased in 1986 and currently functions as a parking lot. Other parts of the burial ground extend over a plot of land recently purchased for the construction of an apartment complex, the work on which has ceased since revelations about the land's origins. 

As of April 16, work on the site has not resumed. Assistant professor in Penn’s Graduate Program of Historic Preservation Aaron Wunsch said that after coverage on the cemetery began, he noticed “a black mesh shroud” covering the fencing around the site, which he believes was done to restrict one’s view of the property.

“That’s not standard practice for a construction site,” Wunsch said. “Try and find other construction sites in West Philly that look like that.”

Wunsch further commented on the timeliness of the recent revelation.

“Penn’s record of preservation in University City is mixed at best,” Wunsch said. “At this particular moment, when there is growing interest in the University’s own connections to slavery, this would be a moment from a purely practical, public relations standpoint for them to take this very seriously.”

Experts have been working since early January to determine the status of the burial ground and whether human remains are still intact on site.

“We’ve found no evidence that the bodies have been moved in 20th century newspaper reports,” professor at Stony Brook University and 1993 School of Arts and Sciences graduate Donna Rilling said. Rilling has been working with Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, to uncover more information on the people originally buried at the site by tracking census data to better understand the demographics of the community. 

Credit: Alice Goulding

Up until the 1810s, there did not exist a recognized space for the respectful burials of African American Philadelphians, Wunsch said. He added that by the 1820s, black and white Philadelphians were interested in creating burial grounds connected to mutual aid societies, which would offer a non-church affiliated alternative to community members. 

Senior Pastor of Monumental Baptist Church Rev. Dr. J. Wendell Mapson echoed Wunsch’s statements. 

“Church membership wasn’t a qualification to be buried [at the African Friends of Harmony Cemetery],” Mapson said. 

Of the 126 burial entries between the years of 1860 and 1882 that have been located in this burial ground by Rilling and Mooney, over 60 percent died by the age of four and 40 percent were 12 months or younger. One couple buried four children, whose ages ranged from 18 months to 12 years, in the span of two months in 1881. 

“The census often just says that [these residents] were laborers or gardeners for the surrounding upper-class community that was increasingly settling into the area,” Rilling said.  She added that many of those buried in the cemetery were affiliated with Monumental Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

The grounds were purchased by white property owners in 1910, who paid “decent money” for the plot and turned it into a car dealership, according to Rilling. She added that it’s unclear whether or not these buyers were aware of the existence of the burial grounds. 

“Why they would have paid decent money for it if they knew it was a cemetery, I’m not really sure,” Rilling said. “But why didn’t they develop it? Why didn’t anyone develop it? It was prime real estate.”

Wunsch said the fact that it is a space that has been neglected by the larger Philadelphia community makes the site historically significant.

“It’s valuable not as a monumental place, but as a place that speaks to a way of organizing a community that is easily lost track of precisely because it didn’t manifest itself in monumental or physically grand terms,” Wunsch said. “Penn doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it inherited a landscape that predates it.”

Wunsch also said he believes that all work on the site should stop immediately. 

“There should be a pretty clear cut process that when a discovery like this occurs, work stops and archaeological research proceeds," Wunsch said. “There ideally would be a well-developed map where those places are and I know that Doug [Mooney] is working on that.”

Mapson agreed that construction should not continue due to the significance of the burial grounds. 

“Our congregation is the second oldest black Baptist church in Pennsylvania and we have a great regard for that old site,” Mapson said. “We are very much interested in finding a way to not stop progress, but be assured that their remains are treated respectfully, valued, and reinterred."

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