A Burying Place Forgotten

“A negro belonging to Daniel Walton.” Described as the property of another, Jim lived as a slave in what was known at the time as Byberry Township, now a part of Northeast Philadelphia. Jim became the first person known to be buried at the Byberry Cemetery, originally named, “Burying Place for All Free Negroes or People of Color.” Aside from his first name and his final resting place, there is scant information to be found about Jim. One tax assessment in 1767, lists his owner as Daniel Walton, under which it states, “1 Negro…4”, and nothing more, at least not in anything widely available online. Jim’s burial site itself, the Byberry Cemetery, sits between the National Archives site in Northeast Philadelphia and Benjamin Rush State Park, the latter named for the well-known abolitionist and founding father. Though the tax form alone is nondescript and insulting, the cemetery too lacks any real detail, covered in trees, brush, and powerlines, with no obvious signs or markers to denote the significance of the site.

The cemetery dates back to 1780, the same year that Pennsylvania, the first state in the nation to do so, voted for the gradual abolition of slavery. As the only African American cemetery created in the region during the Revolutionary War period, it answered a question at the time: where should freed slaves be buried? Prior to its establishment many slaves were simply buried on private property, often that of their owner’s. Other common burial sites included orchards and open fields. While it is impossible to know every location that served as a burial site, this cemetery’s location is known, and its degradation is a travesty.

Were it not for the work of self-described histophotocartographer, Joe Menkevich, this very site and its existence could be forgotten in the shadows of America’s past, particularly in a city rich in historical sites. With so many historic properties, Philadelphia has its own historic register, separate from the more well-known National Historic Register. Thanks to Joe’s work, Byberry Cemetery is now listed as a historic site in the Philadelphia Register. Despite more protections against alterations or changes to the site the designation, however, does not mean preservation, which Joe believes can only be done through conservation and restoration.

Self-described as an, “ill-tempered, cantankerous, opinionated” individual, Joe’s knowledge of local history runs deep, particularly that of Northeast Philadelphia and its roots rich with African American history. Joe has made numerous submissions to the Philadelphia historic register, though the submission of the Byberry Cemetery was his first and one which in hindsight he calls “sloppy.” A more recent submission for historic recognition by Joe was for the Wilmot Public School for African Americans. A noted graduate of Wilmot, Mary Chase Beckett, once wrote “the evil that men do live after them but the good is often buried with their bones.” Hopefully the Byberry Cemetery receives more attention and even true preservation, rather than disappearing into the bones of its submission.

The Northeast Life

COVID-19

We have two people here at TheNortheastLife, each of us having full time jobs. As many of you already know, we created this site as a way of serving our often overlooked communities that make up the Northeast. When COVID reached not just the shores of the United States, but struck the greater Northeast with its epicenter in neighboring Montgomery County, we knew that we had to help out. Working in healthcare, we already had ourselves on the front lines. But with our website and social media pages we knew we could do more.

Therefore, back when Governor Wolf and Mayor Kenney closed down most businesses and put the region on lockdown, we reached out to local establishments that remained open for take out and delivery. We wanted to help them: to list them as open. We wanted to have one clean site where people could go to find out who is open. Others have done similar, and no doubt more will come. But we see this as our part in helping our greater community. From places like the Grey Lodge Pub to Gallo’s Seafood to Stella’s Pizza, many places remain open. Sure, hours often have changed as have processes for pick up, but we can support these places.

In posting places, we do ask that someone from the establishment reach out. In these uncertain times we do not want to list a place as open when it may in fact have other plans, such as reduced hours or even a temporary closure. We can and will all get through this together! Stay well, and thanks for following!