Officials from the University of Pennsylvania are now consulting with West Philadelphia community leaders after recent archeological testing at a university-owned site revealed an African-American burial ground from the nineteenth century.
The university learned last year that the property had previously been used as a burial ground. In response, the institution issued two sequences of field testing, which has recently conclusively confirmed the presence of graves.
The site was first flagged by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (PAF), which is building a crowdsourced database of historical burial grounds in the city. The PAF found records that the site had once been the African Friends of Harmony Cemetery. The organization, a mutual aid society that helped provide burials to African-Americans, purchased the lot in 1826.
The old burial ground actually stretches across the boundaries of two modern lots. The lot owned by Penn was used as a surface parking lot that has now been closed. The adjacent lot was redeveloped last year as an apartment building. The field research found that by 1882, approximately 136 people had been buried there. The property was purportedly deconsecrated and sold into private ownership after 1910. Since the university purchased the lot in 1986, it has been used as a parking lot.
The Rev. Dr. J. Wendell Mapson Jr., senior pastor at Monumental Baptist, was one of the local leaders Penn reached out to about what to do next. He believes that the most likely course of action will be to install a historical marker on the property telling the cemetery’s story.
“I’m very happy that at least part of the burial ground — which I would call sacred ground — would be memorialized in some kind of way, and the remains reinterred in another cemetery with some kind of marker that acknowledges that these people did live, and they worked, and they had families,” Dr. Mapson says.