African American Burial Ground in Northeast Philadelphia
February 18, 2013
Digital Report by Joseph J. Menkevich
As a member of the research committee of the Historical Society of Frankford and as an independent researcher, I felt a moral obligation to personally contact a number of the area’s AME & Baptist Churches and inform them of this Historical Cemetery. Many members of the Black Community thanked me, as most had never heard about it before.
On the outskirts of Benjamin Rush State Park there is a small plot of ground that once belonged to the Byberry Preparative Meeting (Society of Friends).
In 1780, the Byberry Meeting established a cemetery for Free-Blacks & former Slaves. After 200 years of custodianship, & for reasons still unknown, the Byberry Friends sold the African American Cemetery to the City of Philadelphia.
Today – as Benjamin Rush State Park undergoes it’s final stages of development, the “[African Amerian] Historic Burial Ground Not To Be Disturbed” appears to be safely inside the Plan of the Park, however that may not be the case. It is presently unknown if the City still retains ownership or not.
Presently (no matter who “owns” it), there is no clarity on the fate of this cemetery and thus-far, there has not yet been any State or City Official speak on it’s inclusion to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places or for a ceremony & installation an Historical Marker.
On Thursday, January 27, 2013 – I met with State Park Manager Eric Ihlein at Benjamin Rush State Park and did we did a walk around the general area of African American Cemetery site.
Eric Ihlein explained many of the construction plans. What I understood from the conversation is that the Park has funding & a budget, but the African Cemetery is not included in that budget. The plan for now seems to be an ongoing study by several “historical groups.” Here are my findings:
Byberry Meeting African American Cemetery – Inventory & Reports
January 02, 2013, the Northeast Times carried an article highlighting a 220 year old African American Burial Ground on the corner of Benjamin Rush State Park. Link: A bit of history lies buried in Benjamin Rush State Park
August 26, 1993, Philadelphia Inquirer states that the African Burial ground was discovered due to a routine geological survey done for the General Services Administration. Link to story: Cemetery To Rest In Peace
One sixteen page research report done by the Byberry Librarian Helen File, undated. This report includes some GIS mapping done by Fred Moore of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network (NEPHN). Read or download this report here: colored cem4a.pdf
One eighteen page U.S. Government Phase II Archeological Study, dated September 16, 1993. It is a complete report containing maps, photos and recommendations. Read or download the .pdf here: Byberry Meeting African American Cemetery[Note – the GSA Report mis-cited deed WSV.813.4 & WSV.813.6 as WSV.513.4 and WSV.513.6]
Related Cemetery Deed (1872)
FTW.16.24 John P. Townsend to Watson C. Martindale (trustee)
FTW.16.26 John P. Townsend to Watson C. Martindale (trustee)
Related Cemetery Deed (1906)
WSV.813.4 Watson C. Martindale to Edward Comly (trustee)
WSV.813.6 Watson C. Martindale to Edward Comly (trustee)
April 14, 1806
The larger parcel bordering the cemetery – containing fifty-two acres and forty-two perches [excluding] “a lot of Burying Ground for the Black People”
EF.24.140 Ezra Townsend from Evan Townsend
EF.24.142 Ezra Townsend from Evan Townsend
April 2, 1849
The same large parcel bordering the cemetery –
“… along the middle of the said road by a burial ground for the colored people on one side and a lot formerly of Benjamin Adams on the other side … containing exclusive of the burial ground for the colored people, hereby expressly reserved and excepted, [containing] fifty acres and one-hundred-twenty-six perches …”
GWC.12.147 Amos Wilson & James Townsend to Thornton Stackhouse
GWC.12.148 Amos Wilson & James Townsend to Thornton Stackhouse
June 21, 1906
Larger parcel bordering the cemetery –
“All That Certain Messuage and Tract of Land … Bounded and described according to a Survey and Plan Thereof made by Clement B. Webster Esq., Surveyor of the Fourteenth Survey District May 24, 1906, as follows … to a point thence extending by Ground of Trustees of Byberry Preparative Meeting … sixty-two feet, eight & three-eights inches to a point … Thence extending still by the same ground … one-hundred-twenty feet, nine & three-eights inches to a point in the middle of Townsend Road …Containing Fifty-Two and 7494/10000th Acres”
WSV.640.232 Thornton Stackhouse to Harry N. Simons
WSV.640.234 Thornton Stackhouse to Harry N. Simons
WSV.640.236 Thornton Stackhouse to Harry N. Simons
City Atlas of Philadelphia, Vol. 3, 23rd Ward, 1876 – G. M. Hopkins
Thornton Stackhouse property in Upper left Corner Plate Q
Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 35th Ward, 1927
Geo. W. and Walter S. Bromley,
Harry N. Simons property in Upper Right Corner, Plate 25
Joseph C. Martindale indicated that when it came to paying taxes, many were taxed double for refusal to comply or answer to the tax collector.
In 1767, the tax on having a servant was £1. 10s, while it was £4.0 for every negro, so there may have been an incentive to in just paying double as opposed to being truthful. See Philadelphia County (Pa.). Commissioners – The particulars of each person’s estate, as appears by the township and ward assessors’ returns as follows.
The 1769 Tax does not list Negroes or Servants as being different, see:
Proprietary, supply, and state tax lists of the city and county of Philadelphia
In 1779 most Byberry residents or estates paid double taxes, see:
Effective Supply Tax of the County of Philadelphia
Records not always to be relied upon
In Early Quaker education in Pennsylvania by Thomas Woody, 1920, on Education of Negroes and Indians:
‘Byberry Preparative Meeting makes no reference during the early years to the status of the Negro in its limits. Martindale, in a History of Byberry and Moreland, states that slavery came into Byberry about 1721, the slaves being employed by the more opulent class to do the roughest work. The inventory of a Friends’ property (1727) showed that he possessed “one negro girl, £20, and one negro boy, £30. Of their intervening history little is recorded, though the Negroes were set free by many members of Friends, and in 1779 the meeting authorized Silas Walmsley and William Walmsley to provide a suitable burying ground for the use of Negroes who had been freed. What was done for their education is not known.
It is noticeable that in the earliest answers to the query concerning Negroes (about 1756) the majority of the monthly meetings usually answered in an offhand manner that they were “clear” or there were “none to be charged with that breech,” or something to that effect.’
The Byberry Friends Report and the GSA Report have some overlap. Each citing similar sources & deeds. Each report also contains information missing from the other.
The GSA Report was rather complete, with a neutral bias, relying upon several records at Swarthmore College.
It also relied heavily on Joseph C. Martindale to be an highly credible & accomplished historian of his time period. The report also took notice to the “little mounds,” giving credence to a possibility of many burials.
Martindale proved there were several negroes present in Byberry as he cited a Petition against A Tavern to be kept by Richard Carver, June 2, 1746
“…The inhabitants signed a remonstrance against granting this application, in which it was stated that it would be an injury to the neighborhood; that there was no need of a tavern in the place, as three were already within three miles, and that it would only be a resort for idle persons, servants, and negroes.”
December 01, 1755
“Petition against A Tavern proposed to be Kept By one Buskerk at the Sign of the 3 Sticks: Jacob Buskirk … hath Erected a Little house in the sd: township of bybury in order as we have heard to Keep A Tavern provided he can obtain license for the purpose …”
see: Petitions for Tavern Licenses, Society Miscellaneous Collection, box 4a, which confirms both Martaindale’s tavern accounts. (1755 extract is from HSP collection).
According to one of the deeds, Watson C. Martindale was the Trustee for the African Burial Ground, and he was also Joseph’s brother. Another brother, Isaac C Martindale, helped him collect historical documents & publish his book.
His father Charles Martindale purchased from Edward Parry 72 1/4 acres in 1836. It was located on Black Run Lake. see: J.C. Sydney, Surveyor, 1849 Plan of the townships of Byberry and Moreland View map.
In 1843, his father also made a purchase from Robert Comfort. It was Trust Deed for the lands of Silas Titus. This deed involved several people including Robert Purvis.
I believe that Joseph C. Martindale should be considered an expert witness on Byberry History, having spent his childhood living on his father’s farm.
I place negative bias on the January 02, 2013 Northeast Times Article for minimizing & downplaying the importance of the African Cemetery, citing “no records of any kind” & being “only aware of one burial.”
The August 26, 1993, Philadelphia Inquirer was key in proving that the State & City has had long standing knowledge of the Cemetery, but has failed to follow the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s recommendations for fencing and an historic marker.
Finding the 1993 GSA Report
Acknowledgment to Stuart Paul Dixon, the principal investigator for research of former African-American graveyard. He also worked in the Department of Park Planning, the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks, and was on the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation for General Services Administration. Mr. Dixon passed away in 2008.
If We The People are the government – then We have the authority to demand preservation and respect for this burial site. – Fiñus
This compilation may contain copyrighted materials, however, as it is being used for educational purposes & not for profit, it falls under FAIR USE.
Materials on hyperlinked web sites is the property or responsibility of their respective owners.
All deeds were obtained from the web based Historic Records in the City of Philadelphia’s microfilm collection.
The were in a raw numerical format, research was necessary to find them. I assigned the names, book pages, numbers and names – as well as altered or rotated the image and therefor consider myself the author and copyright owner. Please cite my name when reusing the numbered deed images and corresponding affixed information.
Joseph J. Menkevich © 2013 all rights reserved
2 thoughts on “African American Burial Ground at Benjamin Rush State Park”
Joe Menkevisch has done an outstanding job of researching and compiling material on the erstwhile Byberry Friends African American Burial Ground at the old intersection of Burling Ave, Townsend Rd, and Meetinghouse Rd – at the far eastern corner of Benjamin Rush State Park.
Until the ownership of the tiny 1/8 acre lot is cleared up, it is difficult to make plans for an appropriate marker and for proper presentation of the graveyard. The Northeast Philadelphia History Network is working to accomplish that.
Regarding the opinion that the Jan 2, 2013 Northeast Times article had a ”negative bias “, I think that’s unfair. The Times was quoting Helen File: “We’re only aware of one burial. There might be more, but there are no records of any kind.”
The one burial we are aware of comes from one source, Joseph Martindale’s 1867 History of Byberry and Moreland Townships. Much of the early material in Martindale’s history came from his uncle Isaac Comly. Comly’s Sketches of the History of Byberry appeared in the Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1827. From page 194:
“From about 1720, we find, divers of the most opulent persons in and near Byberry,and some of them distinguished members of the meeting, were concerned in the purchase of negroes brought to Philadelphia from the coast of Africa. The number of slaves appears to have increased till about 1758, when Friends issued a formidable protest against slavery. From that time the number rapidly decreased. It does not appear that more than two or three members of Byberry meeting persisted in holding slaves, so far as to suffer disownment. The negroes were generally liberated. Care was taken to provide for those set free, to assist them in procuring a livelihood, and to educate their children. By an assessment made in 1781, we find there were at that time but three slaves in Byberry. At present not only has slavery entirely vanished; but.the whole race of those formerly held as slaves in this neighbourhood have vanished also.
The negroes were formerly buried in the orchards belonging to their masters. There was also a cemetery for them on lands late of William Walmsley, where it appears thirty or forty were interred. In 1780, Friends purchased a lot of Thomas Townsend, for a negro burying ground, and the practice of burying on private property was discontinued.”
Martindale adds directly to that account (pg 66 of his History of Byberry and Moreland, 1867): “The record says the first person buried there was ‘Jim’, a negro belonging to Daniel Walton.”
We have been unable to find that “record” or any other records of burials in the Byberry African American Burial Ground.
The Northeast Times says: — “The 200-year-old graveyard once tended to by the Byberry Meeting remains a mystery in Northeast Philly”
It’s only a mystery because it was designed to be a mystery.
Benjamin Rush State Park was founded in 1976 —
Today’s Mystery: What was the reason for the Byberry Friends, after 200 years of protection, to abandon their mission in 1980 and sell the African American Cemetery to City?
Why did the City of Philadelphia want to purchase this small cemetery in the first place?
John Milner Associates did a Phase I Study of the site in 1988. The GSA did the Phase II Study in 1993.
What is a still a mystery today is: What the City of Philadelphia did about the African American Burial Ground for last 32 Years?
I believed that my report proved there were several records not considered by the Byberry Friends.
In response to Fred Moore >Regarding the opinion that the Jan 2, 2013 Northeast Times article had a ”negative bias “, I think that’s unfair. The Times was quoting Helen File. “We’re only aware of one burial. There might be more, but there are no records of any kind.” <
Helen File could not have said anything different, as she was quoting Martindale (and accordingly), even that one burial record cannot be found today.
It's better to tell the public what you do know, than what you do not know. To me – the article was written with negative bias and was poor reporting on an important matter.
Friend's Librarian Helen File could have answered many of these questions simply by looking up the modern day records, but the Northeast Times was too timid to ask.
In my wandering thoughts — because the Byberry Friends had complicity in the importation of Africans and the stigma that comes with it, the "only one burial" statement was a self-serving form of administering absolution & a separation from guilt.
I believe the Byberry Friends are way too comfortable in repeating that they "know nothing" by using those Martindale statements which minimize slavery.
There were enough slaves present in 1746 & 1755 that the Byberry residents used it as a reason to petition against a tavern being established.
The Byberry Friends possibly destroyed their records by design – perhaps 100 years before Martindale published his book in 1867.
While I find Martindale an expert eye witness on certain events, statistics & land records, I disagree with him on others.
The 1767 tax records list 9 Servants and 11 negroes. The 1769 Tax records (almost identical owners) list 23 servants and 0 negroes. The 1783 Tax records lists 0 servants and 4 negroes.
The Byberry Friends possibly fudged the records in order to avoid paying taxes. Instead of lying to the tax collector, they exploited the rules & refused to answer the tax collector. They paid a double tax as a penalty, but this also masked the true number of slaves present within the township.
Because of the time period, and the presence of Robert Purvis in the community, I believe it is probable that Martindale purposely downplayed the Byberry Slavery ownership issues.
Consider this: Joseph Comly Martindale was born February 5, 1833, and for the next 21 or so years, he was raised on his father's Byberry Farm.
Two years after the American Civil War, while anti-Slavery issues in Philadelphia were at a an apex, abolitionist Robert Purvis was living on the adjacent farm of Martindale's father.
Joseph C. Martindale & his brother rounded up several records in possession of the local residents & published in 1867. Joseph C. Martindale died on December 4, 1872.
Here is something else to consider. There was a Declaration of Independence in 1776. Many Friends refused to fight in the American Revolutionary War.
Quaker leaders were placed in prison in Winchester Virginia for being British Sympathizers. Many people sent their Slaves off to War. Perhaps the Byberry Friends did the same.
Perhaps by 1779 to 1780 the Byberry Friends were too embarrassed at their own cowardice for refusing to fight a War (hiding behind religion); they decided to free their Slaves & provide a graveyard as a gift to the Negroes who did serve in the War.
'THE NEGRO SOLDIER IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION'
"The facts as to the participation of Negroes in the American Revolution have received the attention of several writers. Yet not one of them has made a scientific presentation of the facts which they have discovered. These historians have failed to consider the bearing of the status of the free Negro during the colonial period, the meaning of the Revolution to the Negro, and what the service of the Negro soldiers first enlisted effected in changing the attitude of the people toward the blacks throughout the original thirteen colonies.
To a person who has lived in the nineteenth or twentieth century it would seem incredible that Negroes, the majority of whom were then slaves, should have been allowed to fight in the Continental Army. The layman here may forget that during the eighteenth century slavery was a patriarchal institution rather than the economic plantation system as it developed after the multiplication of mechanical appliances, which brought about the world-wide industrial revolution.
During the eighteenth century a number of slaves brought closely into contact with their masters were gradually enlightened and latter emancipated. Such freedmen, in the absence of any laws to the contrary, exercised political rights, among which was that of bearing arms. Negroes served not only in the American Revolution, but in every war of consequence during the colonial period. There were masters who sent slaves to the front to do menial labor and to fight in the places of their owners. Then there were slaves who, finding it easier to take occasional chances with bullets than to bear the lash, ran away from their masters and served as privateers or enlisted as freemen. …
Favorable as this condition of Negroes during the colonial period seemed, the situation became still more desirable during the Revolution itself. This upheaval was social as well as political. Aristocracy was suddenly humiliated and the man in the common walks of life found himself in power, grappling with problems which he had long desired to solve. Sprung from the indentured servant poor white class, the new rulers had more sympathy for the man farthest down. The slaves, therefore, received more consideration. In the heat of the excitement of war the system lost almost all of its rigor, the slave codes in some cases falling into desuetude. The contest for liberty was in the mouths of some orators of the Revolution the cause of the blacks as well as that of the whites, and the natural rights of the former were openly discussed in urging the independence of the United States. …" http://archive.org/stream/journalofnegrohi01assouoft#page/110/mode/2up
Also consider this: Once Black-Men became Free-men, perhaps they did not need to ask permission from the Byberry Friends to use the cemetery.
Of course it's all mystery full of possibilities & no records can be found — but it is no mystery as to exactly where that graveyard is & how it looks right now.
Just as a refresher, we went over the pre-history of Benjamin Rush State Park in 2011 – in the comment section at this link: http://gloomyhappy.wpengine.com/2011/11/21/the-price-of-inaction-at-adams-avenue/
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