Northeast Times

A bit of history lies buried in Benjamin Rush State Park

— The 200-year-old grave­yard once ten­ded to by the By­berry Meet­ing re­mains a mys­tery in North­east Philly.

There is a grave­yard in Ben­jamin Rush State Park.

It’s loc­ated some­where in the east­ern corner of the site, said loc­al his­tor­i­an Jack Mc­Carthy. The buri­al ground dates back more than 200 years, but ex­actly where it is isn’t easy to de­term­ine, he said in a Novem­ber phone in­ter­view.

It’s a little North­east his­tory mys­tery.

Very little. The plot is about a quarter-acre, said Helen File, treas­urer of the By­berry Meet­ing (Friends) and pres­id­ent of its board of trust­ees. The Friends had looked after the tiny grave­yard set up for freed slaves from 1780 un­til it was sold to the city in 1980, she said.

“It’s very small,” she said in an in­ter­view. “We’re only aware of one buri­al.”

There might be more, but there are no re­cords of any kind, she said. 

“People could be bur­ied there and nobody would know,” she ad­ded. 

There are no mark­ers that would help pin­point ex­actly where the plot is, she said.

Friends didn’t be­lieve in tomb­stones, she said. Be­sides, she ad­ded, grave­stones really wer­en’t in vogue un­til about the middle of the 19th cen­tury.

Even when the state com­pletes a long-awaited de­vel­op­ment of the park’s 275 acres this year, there won’t be any mark­ers, she said.

The plot likely will be men­tioned on any in­form­a­tion about the prop­erty the state posts in the park, she said, but that won’t be near the grave­yard, which, as small as it is, might not be com­pletely in the park. Some of it might be on ad­ja­cent city prop­erty.

The his­tor­ic buri­al ground is shown in the ex­treme right on a map the state re­leased when funds for park im­prove­ments were an­nounced in 2010. The plot is in an area that will not be touched by con­struc­tion that began in late Decem­ber. It’s thought to be some­where bey­ond the end of Burl­ing Av­en­ue, the neg­lected city street that runs from Roosevelt Boulevard through the park. Burl­ing Av­en­ue will be covered over when con­struc­tion is com­plete in 2013.

The park’s acres on the east side of the Boulevard were used as farms, File said. It’s vir­gin ground, she said. It’s nev­er been dug up for a build­ing found­a­tion and noth­ing ever has been built on it. Ve­get­ables for Holmes­burg Pris­on were grown on the land, she said. Pris­on­ers were brought there every day to work the land. 

Some state and city em­ploy­ees, File and rep­res­ent­at­ives of the North­east Phil­adelphia His­tory Net­work were go­ing to hunt for the grave­yard on Nov. 27, but wet weath­er scratched that search, Mc­Carthy said.

Ac­cord­ing to ma­ter­i­als from the Meet­ing’s By­berry Lib­rary that Mc­Carthy sup­plied to the North­east Times, the buri­al plot for freed slaves was pur­chased from Thomas Town­send in 1780, and it’s known that a man named Jem was bur­ied there. 

Even­tu­ally, the par­cel was trans­ferred to a trust­ee of the monthly meet­ing in 1872. Churches couldn’t own prop­erty at that time, but church trust­ees could, File said.

The prop­erty was trans­ferred to Ed­ward Comly in 1906. The Friends looked after the tiny grave­yard un­til it was sold to the city in April 1980, File said.

Some­time dur­ing its 200-plus years, there was a fence around the plot. Nine­teenth cen­tury Meet­ing re­cords show a re­port that the fence needed to be re­paired, she said.

“For the last one-hun­dred years, there’s been no fence there,” she said.

In Novem­ber, File said she once had tried to find the buri­al ground’s ex­act loc­a­tion. That was a while ago.

“I have not been back in that area in forty-five years,” File said. ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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