Testing finds signs of African-American burial ground beneath Chestnut Street property

Portions of the cemetery, dating to the 19th century, may still lie beneath land owned by Penn. University officials are working with the community to decide what’s next.

Archeological testing commissioned by the University at a Penn-owned site on Chestnut Street has revealed an African-American burial ground active in the 19th century. 

Penn officials say they’re now consulting with West Philadelphia community leaders and considering what to do with the property in the 4100 block of Chestnut Street, which was recently added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. 

Jeffrey Cooper, Penn’s vice president for government and community affairs, says the University, which bought the land in 1986, learned in January 2018 that it had previously been used as a burial ground many decades earlier. The University proceeded with two sequences of field testing, which has conclusively confirmed the presence of burials. 

Penn officials met with the leaders of the two longstanding West Philadelphia congregations with direct historical connections to the burial ground, Monumental Baptist Church and Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, to discuss the findings and begin collaborating on how to respectfully move forward. 

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’s now been closed. The adjacent lot was redeveloped last year as an apartment building. 

Parking lot on Chestnut Street
The burial ground stretches across two lots, one of which Penn bought in 1986 and used as a parking lot. It's now closed. (Photo: Gwyneth K. Shaw)

The Rev. Dr. J. Wendell Mapson Jr., senior pastor at Monumental Baptist, says no one in the church knew about the burial ground until the early indications surfaced last year. He’s heartened by his initial conversation with the University now that conclusive details have emerged. 

“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,” Mapson says. 

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, bought the property in 1826. 

By 1882, research shows, approximately 136 people had been buried there. The property was purportedly deconsecrated and sold into private ownership after 1910. 

While the parcel is listed as a graveyard on historic maps dated 1878, 1886, 1895, and 1901, its existence appears to have been lost to history until recently. When Penn purchased the land, it was a used car lot.

After the PAF made the discovery, University officials met with representatives from the organization to decide how to find out whether there are grave plots on the property without disturbing the area. The University then hired a consulting firm, AECOM, with expertise in burial grounds to help with research and exploratory work. 

Building on the information gathered through documentary research, the firm used ground penetrating radar to examine the land without disturbing it. While that process found no strong signs of grave plots, there were enough anomalies to continue to the next phase. 

In November, the Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Penn-owned lot to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places

In January, AECOM performed a procedure called “ground truthing,” in which four shallow trenches were dug in order to expose what would have been the surface at the time the burial ground was active. The idea was to confirm the suspected presence of burials by looking for grave outlines and other signs of burials, without actually digging below the surface. 

“It’s as if they’re removing 10 layers of wallpaper to get to the plaster underneath to see what the historic layer of plaster is telling them, but not actually disturbing the plaster,” says David Hollenberg, the University architect for special projects. 

In three of the four trenches, there was evidence of burial shafts, according to the AECOM report, which was recently shared with Penn. Without further exploration, it’s unclear how many graves might lie beneath the modern surface. 

The question now is what to do with the newly-revealed legacy. Mapson says his initial thoughts are that reinterment elsewhere, with a historical marker on the property telling the cemetery’s story, probably makes the most sense. 

“I think that whatever we can do to honor the past, and the ancestors of what was a very vibrant black community at the time, we should do that,” Mapson says. “I’m saddened that the other portion of the burial ground was used and there’s already a building on there without a little more time to sort through it.”

Glenn Bryan, Penn’s assistant vice president for government and community affairs, says this initial and future collaboration is a demonstration of the strength of the University’s relationships with its neighbors. 

Mapson says he plans to discuss the issue with his congregation and expects the leaders of Mt. Pisgah to do the same. He praised Penn officials for their sensitivity and willingness to work with the community. 

“I was very heartened by that desire on the part of Penn, when other institutions have seemed to not really care,” Mapson says. “I’m sure that there are spots like this all around the city. Who knows how many have just been ignored by people who don’t care about that?”