In the post-Revolutionary period, Philadelphia was the home of the largest free black community in the burgeoning United States. Like any population of size, black residents were forced to contend with the reality of death – not only its commonality in the disease-ridden city, but also the logistics of burial. White hostility only complicated the matter, as white city leaders saw burial grounds as a space in which to exert racial control under the guise of public health.
Early burial grounds were almost universally associated with churches, but blacks were barred from creating their own churches until Richard Allen founded Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in 1792. In the meantime, black people were typically buried in the city Potter’s Field, alongside prisoners, beggars, and the unclaimed bodies from the city hospital.
From the beginning, the control of urban space and the control of bodies went hand in hand. Bodysnatching, the practice of looting bodies from graves so that anatomists could dissect them for science, plagued the black community. Without control of the land in which the bodies of their family and friends were buried – a petition by black community leaders to purchase a section of the Potter’s Field was promptly denied – little could be done to defend against the practice.
Like bodysnatching, the success of these community leaders in forming churches and burial grounds was linked to public health and the ownership of land. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, founders of two black churches in the city, leveraged the role of some black residents as medics in the devastating 1792 yellow fever epidemic to argue their cause. Later, the congregation at Mother Bethel used legal incorporation as the tool by which to maintain ownership and control of their property. Doing so physically delineated spaces in which black bodies could be interred and also limited opportunities for white exploitation.
The first half of the 1800s saw the creation of at least a dozen black burial grounds. As the population of Philadelphia grew and the city expanded, these sites faced a host of pressures, ranging from Board of Health citations, to commercialization, to the increasing premium placed on green space within the city center. In weathering these pressures, many burial grounds were closed or relocated, and the bodies within them at times left behind, disposed of, or re-intered elsewhere.
Throughout this process, many such sites were lost to the historical record; several have been rediscovered only in the last five years. As these rediscoveries continue, it is vital to understand the position black burial grounds occupied in the urban landscape of Philadelphia.