Commemorating a colonial-era burial ground for blacks in Germantown

Commemorating a colonial-era burial ground for blacks in Germantown

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More than 260 years after the colonial German Township set up a separate burial ground for “all Strangers, Negroes and Mulattoes,” workers have begun planting grass sod at the long-neglected site to commemorate one of America’s first cemeteries for slaves and other people of color.

The grass, which covers a parcel of land the size of a football field, sits at the center of a new $22 million low-rise housing complex now nearing completion by the Philadelphia Housing Authority on the block bounded by Queen Lane, Pulaski, Penn and Priscilla streets.

Alex Bartlett, librarian at the Germantown Historical Society, holds copy of document recording the sale of land in Germantown to become one of America's earliest burial grounds for blacks.

Alex Bartlett, librarian at the Germantown Historical Society, holds copy of document recording the sale of land in Germantown to become one of America’s earliest burial grounds for blacks.

The planting, begun earlier in March, is the first concrete step toward official recognition of the site as an historic black burial ground.

Getting respect

For residents in the predominantly black Germantown neighborhood, commemoration of the burial ground can’t come soon enough. “I would like to see the site get the respect it deserves as a cemetery for black people,” said Barry Leland, 76, a retired Budd Company worker who joined in the successful community campaign to maintain and recognize what came to be known as the Germantown potter’s field.

Michael Johns, senior executive vice president for capital projects and development at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, acknowleged that recognition of the potter’s field was long overdue. “In the past,” he said, “these types of burial grounds weren’t given the sort of attention and reverence that they should have received. It’s important for a public institution like the housing authority, when we do any major development, to look at the community in which the development is built.”

Recovering lost history

The push to find, save and honor the former black burial ground in Germantown is part of a citywide effort by African-American activists and others to recover lost memories of slavery and the history of blacks, both slave and free, in the North.

Copy of cover page from 1755 documenting sale of land for a separate burial ground for "strangers" and people of color.

Copy of cover page from 1755 documenting sale of land for a separate burial ground for “strangers” and people of color.

In recent years, for instance, historians have documented that George Washington held nine enslaved Africans in his house a block from Independence Hall when he was president. Benjamin Chew, a distinguished colonial jurist who built Cliveden House in Germantown, was the largest slave holder in Pennsylvania. Black burial grounds have been uncovered everywhere from Germantown to South Philadelphia.

“Not only are we connecting to the bones of ancestors, but we are also giving rebirth to the stories of people who were denied a history,” said George Boudreau, a historian at La Salle University who teaches early American and African-American history. “Imagine being a person who knows your grandmother’s bones have been paved over for a parking lot.”

The burial ground in Germantown, which is owned by the housing authority, has had a checkered – and controversial – history.

Workers at the new housing site have begun rolling out grass sod in the center of the low-rise complex.

Workers at the new housing site have begun rolling out grass sod in the center of the low-rise complex.

The purchase in 1755

It was purchased by the German Township in 1755 as a separate cemetery for non-residents and people of color. The price: $1 to bury an adult, 50 cents to bury a child. How many people were buried there is not known. Records at the Germantown Historical Society have documented the burial of a “dead negroe child” in 1766. Records also show burials of “W.H.” in 1840, “S.H.” in 1848 and “John Brown” in 1914.

At the beginning of the 20th century, neighborhood boys turned the potter’s field into a makeshift baseball diamond, using headstones as bases. John Brown’s tombstone became home plate, according to a 1915 story in the Independent Gazette, a Germantown newspaper. By 1916, the city health department had declared the field a public nuisance, calling it a “desolate spot” full of litter, chickens, ducks, and feral cats.

No more burials were allowed on the site, which was turned into a playground for the Wissahickon Boys Club. During construction of the playground, the tombstones of W.H. and S.H. were unearthed, according to a 1920 press account. There are no records of what happened to the two tombstones, and nobody has ever found the tombstone of John Brown.

A high-rise for the poor

In 1955, the housing authority, which had acquired the land, constructed a 16-story high-rise at the site. Known as the Queen Lane Apartments, the high rise eventually became a tenement ridden with crime and drugs. By 2011, the authority shuttered the building and began making plans to tear it down and construct low-rise housing at the site.

Although many in Germantown were happy to see the high-rise go, the plan to build anew on top of the potter’s field drew stiff opposition from neighborhood activists. Unlike the 1950s, when there was little public attention to black history, the residents of Germantown were now up at arms about building on top of what they regarded as “hallowed ground.”

They successfully fought the housing authority, winning an agreement from the federal agency not to build atop the burial ground and to commemorate the site with grass and a commemorative marker.

No remains found

Before the high-rise was imploded in 2014 to make way for the new low-rise public housing, extensive archeological studies at the site found no human remains. What happened to the bones of those buried there? Nobody knows for sure. Alex Bartlett, librarian at the Germantown Historical Society, speculated that the remains may have become part of the debris during construction of the high-rise in 1955.  Others speculate that the bodies may have been exhumed and moved elsewhere, but nobody knows where.

New low-rise public housing now in the final stages of construction on Pulaski Street in Germantown.

New low-rise public housing now in the final stages of construction on Pulaski Street in Germantown.

“There was total disrespect,” said Leland, the retiree who grew up near the site and delivered newspapers in the neighborhood as a teenager. “The people buried there were disrespected. So what? I feel as though the whole neighborhood was disrespected.”

Today, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is overseeing a consultative process to determine the design and use of green space at the potter’s field, as well as the design and content of a memorial plaque or marker to be placed at the site. The consultation involves representatives from a wide array of public and private organizations,  including representatives of Northwest Germantown Neighbors, a community group that led the drive to preserve the potter’s field.

Working together on the design

“We want to make sure we are providing something that is in the community’s best interest,” said Brian Schlosnagle, the HUD engineer who is overseeing the consultation.

He said that brainstorming so far has turned up a variety of ideas for landscaping the potter’s field. The ideas include a field for youth to play football or baseball; a leisure park with benches and paths; and community gardens with raised beds of fruits and vegetables.

Schlosnagle said the group is exploring various signage options for a marker of some kind, which it hopes will win approval as a state historical marker. The options, he said, range from a very simple description of the site to a more elaborate history. The group must submit its proposal to the state by next December.

One key issue, Schlosnagle said, will be raising additional funds to finance something beyond the basic landscaping that is now being done at the site. State funds, he said, cover only the basics, and federal funding for the low-rise housing complex have already been allocated. “Right now,” he said, “we are exploring different possibilities.”

Germantown potter’s field interactive timeline

(Jordan Greene, La Salle ’16, contributed reporting.)