Joe Menkevich to Appear Before the Historical Commission

Joe Menkevich is the ultimate historical researcher  He won’t let you say he is a historian because that implies more than what he does.  What he does is dig through documents files archives and pictures to get at facts.  He has been working on documenting the Byberry African American Cemetery.  This cemetery is an orphan.  It sits unmarked and almost forgotten up on Townsend Road in Northeast Philadelphia near Benjamin Rush State Park.

He will be making his case to have this property included in the city list of historic places at the Historical Commission meeting this Wednesday at 9:30 AM.  You can read his nomination documentation at his link.  This is a public meeting for anyone who would like to attend.

Below is a letter of support from John Buffington which argues why this is important to all of us.  It is good to remember that we have our own orphan cemetery right here in Frankford down at Wilmot Park on Meadow Street.

Remarks Prepared for the Historical Commission of Philadelphia

 September 16, 2015

My name is John Buffington. I do neighborhood history rather like Joe Menkevich.

I know a bit about Orphan Cemeteries.

Four generations of several sides of my family rest in a rural Cemetery in South Alabama. My ashes will be there too eventually.

Both of my grandmothers, during near impoverished widowhood, managed to scrape together a modest amount every year to contribute to the informal system for caring for the resting place of the people that they loved.

We buried one of my grandmothers quite close to the fence that runs alongside a 2 Lane State Road.

A few years later the Alabama highway department anticipating the need to someday widen the route from Montgomery to Mobile, condemned additional right of way on both sides of that road.

No one had standing to speak for our dead.

My grandmother now lies in highway right-of-way. If the highway department decides to widen on our side of the road, her grave may be desecrated.

Eventually descendants of the folks in that cemetery got together and organized “The Buffington Cemetery Trust”. We got our federal tax exemption and conducted a fund drive.  I was the founding chair of the Board of Trustees. When I wrote the trust indenture, I stated our intention to maintain and protect that cemetery forevermore.

Then I took the Trust indenture to the Conecuh county courthouse and recorded it in the land records.

Now if anybody ever wants to mess with that cemetery, they know who they have to call.

I also wrote organizing documents and served as chair of the Knowlton Preservation Committee.

When the last standing country house designed by Philadelphia’s greatest architect, Frank Furness, went on the market, neighbors and preservationists and Furness devotees were alarmed to learn that the leading proposal for reuse would have taken most of the site for condominiums, utterly depriving that fabulous building of its remaining context.

The mere existence of an engaged organized constituency, coupled with the legal protections that this great city has put in place, headed off development plans until Jack Conroy, the world’s most acute caterer, came along with a plan that made the most of the architectural asset and sacrificed only the orchard (for parking), a single cut in the rear of the building for a door, and part of the view from the rear.

Twenty-five or so people who immersed themselves in that matter bless the name Conroy and the existence of legal strictures on the development of historic properties every time Knowlton is mentioned.

I want to be on the mailing list whenever the independence or budget of The Philadelphia Historical Commission is threatened.

Who speaks for recognized African-American cemeteries? Doug Mooney mostly.

Who speaks for the restless dead who lie in unlisted ground like Byberry African American Cemetery, Hart Cemetery and Wilmot Playground?  Right now that would be Joe Menkevich.

I know several African Americans who know that their families have been in Frankford longer than my family has been in south Alabama.  They are as proud of their heritage as I am of mine.

My fond hope is that Joe is not the only person who cares about orphan cemeteries of many anonymous souls who labored and served in colonial Philadelphia. I hope that this application will be the catalyst for organizing to speak for the dead. I am ready to write another set of organizing documents. I will hope for a call.