Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission organized a public forum, “Just Beneath the Surface: A Public Conversation about Burial Places in and around Philadelphia.”
The purpose of the event was to increase social awareness about the existence of forgotten burial grounds, and identify legal and regulatory tools to protect these sacred sites. Archaeologist Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, said:
People tend to react like this is the first time something like this has happened. Philadelphia is built on graveyards.
Since 1985, more than 20 cemeteries have been stumbled upon by contractors or city workers, including the Bethel Burial Ground which in 2016 was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The discovery of the Germantown Potter’s Field stopped the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Queen Lane project for three years.
PAF proposes a 5-point plan to protect Philadelphia’s forgotten burial places:
- Establish an official policy that historic burial places are important elements of the city’s historical legacy and are worthy of preservation.
- Create a database/registry of all known historic cemeteries and burial places.
- List all historic burial places in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places as a Thematic District.
- Pass an ordinance establishing a process for treating unmarked burial places.
- Establish clear oversight and accountability roles for city agencies.
Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon. In 1991, an uncivil war of words broke out when skeletal remains were uncovered in Lower Manhattan. After years of protests, meetings, hearings, etc., then-Congressman Augustus Savage told the General Services Administration that funding would be stopped until the matter was resolved. Then as now, money talks. The African Burial Ground National Monument is the final resting place for the remains of 419 free and enslaved Africans.
In the “show me” state, preservationists are dismayed by the lack of love that has been shown to Greenwood Cemetery which dates back to the Reconstruction era. In 2004, Greenwood was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Among the notables interred in Greenwood is Harriet Robinson Scott, a former slave whose husband, Dred Scott, petitioned the courts for his freedom. In the Dred Scott Case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a black person, free or slave, was not and would never be a citizen of the United States.
Shelton was immortalized in Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee” which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959.