Announcing Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Design

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PHOTO ABOVE: In this photo from Tuesday, July 3, 2018, the community center at Weccacoe Playground in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia is closed. The area below the popular playground is the historic cemetery of an African-American church, home to the remains of more than 5,000 black Philadelphia city officials, neighbors and activists. They focused on how to honor those buried without losing the public park. The city announced plans to develop a section of the playground, demolishing the center to make way for the memorial. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

PHILADELPHIA – The City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy (OACCE) and the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee (Committee) are pleased to announce the selection and approval of the Bethel Burying Ground memorial design titled “Her Luxuriant Sol” by Karyn Olivier. Oliver is a Philadelphia-based artist who creates sculptures, installations and public art. His work often intersects and collides with multiple stories and memories with stories from today.

“The commissioners found Karyn Olivier’s design of the memorial to be deep, beautiful and intricate,” said Alan Greenberger, chairman of the commission. “We are thrilled with the memorable experience the space will provide for visitors.”

“Karyn’s proposal is not only a commemoration of our past, but also communicates what we value as a city,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “When they see ‘Her Luxuriant Soil,’ residents of the Queen Village neighborhood and visitors who come to view this memorial will understand that the City of Philadelphia truly appreciates the diversity of our history and the contributions of African Americans.”

The memorial will recognize and celebrate the more than 5,000 African Americans buried at historic Bethel Cemetery located in Weccacoe’s Playground in Queen Village. The Bethel Burying Ground Memorial Project’s budget is $1,150,000, which includes the hand removal of the existing recreation center building and the replacement of the current tennis court.

The winning design for Bethel Burying Ground Memorial will include several elements on the site, including an ornate 19th-century-style cemetery entrance gate at the south end, welcoming visitors to Bethel Burying Ground.

Pavers of white granite and concrete will cover the surface of the cemetery footprint, engraved with inscriptions of the biographies of those buried based on the extensive research of historian Terry Buckalew. Many of the pavers will be treated with a special coating that allows the markings to become visible only in damp or wet weather. Several cobblestones will remain blank, representing burials who have not been identified and whose stories have not yet been revealed. A continuous, flowing brick pathway will delineate the entire footprint of the cemetery. The trail will extend beyond the western fence line, acknowledging the existence of the cemetery grounds beyond the playground. Beyond a walkway, the brick pathway will also serve as a buffer wall between the memorial and the tennis court, as well as a bench that will include a granite “tombstone” inscribed Bethel Burying Ground. Two granite inserts in the wall will be inscribed – one with a quote from Richard Allen, the founder of Mother Bethel AME Church who purchased the land to establish Bethel Burying Ground in 1810, and the other featuring the words inscribed on the single tombstone removed from the site during the archaeological investigation which confirmed the existence of the cemetery.

Throughout the memorial, decorative planters in the shape of cradles will embellish the park and echo the landscape of 19th century cemeteries. This feature will provide an opportunity for community engagement and ceremony, allowing residents and visitors to plant and maintain the decorative vessels, as is the tradition with 19th century barrel tombs.

“Through this memorial, I hope to create a restorative, regenerative, educational, and beautiful space that allows descendants, neighbors, Philadelphians, and visitors to contemplate and honor those buried here,” Olivier said. “I hope it will extend the recognition of the depth, challenge and resilience of the lives of African Americans who resided on the surrounding streets. With this work, I aim to link commemoration with healing and the transience sustainable – an intentional navigation between two sites, two spaces: a black cemetery from the beginning of the 19th century and a current playground.

“The community has been involved in the development of this memorial since the existence of Bethel Burying Ground was revealed in 2010,” council member Mark Squilla said. “I believe this memorial will add great value to the neighborhood where Philadelphians of all ages can visit, learn and benefit from the stories it will tell.”

The city first established the committee in 2017, but many committee and community members have been advocating for the Bethel Burying Ground memorial for more than a decade. The committee is made up of stakeholders that include: OACCE Cultural Director Kelly Lee and Director of Public Art Margot Berg; Friends of Bethel Burying Ground Coalition members Michael Coard, Esq. and Karen Warrington; historian Diane Turner, PhD.; descendants of the interred Stéphanie Gilbert and Yvonne Studevan; Eleanor Ingersoll, president of the Queen Village Neighborhoods Association; Duncan Spencer, representing Friends of Weccacoe Playground; First Episcopal District of the AME Church Presiding by Bishop Gregory GM Ingram; Mother Bethel AME Church, Reverend Mark Tyler and Archivist Margaret Jerrido; and public artists Ife Nii Owoo and Louis Massiah.

The Committee also acknowledges the contribution of Terry Buckalew, former member of the Committee and an integral part of the project. In 2010, Terry brought the existence and history of Bethel Burying Ground to the attention of the City. Its ongoing research sheds light on the lives of those buried there.

Members of Karyn Olivier’s team for this project include David Hassinger, KS Engineers, PC; Todd Woodward, SMP Architects; Darrell Choates Sr., Choates General Contracting LLC; Scott Ritchie, SMP Architects; Todd Woodward, SMP Architects; Julie Bush, Ground Reconsidered, and Doug Mooney, AECOM.

In June 2018, the city officially announced its intention to develop the site-specific public art memorial. A series of four preliminary community engagement sessions were held in November 2018 to gather public input on the emotions, reactions and stories the public art memorial should invoke. In October 2019, a meeting was organized to allow artists and design professionals to connect in order to develop a collaborative approach to respond to this public art opportunity.

A national qualification application and call for artists was launched in November 2019. Twenty teams of artists applied. The city and the Committee selected five semi-finalist artist teams in January 2020 to create design concepts. Four of these teams of artists submitted proposals. The semi-finalist main artists representing the four teams were Muhsana Ali, Shawn Theodore Jackson, Karyn Olivier and Sara Zewde.

The city and committee hosted a series of four community engagement sessions and invited Philadelphians to provide feedback on these design concepts via an online contribution form from January 14 through February 5, 2021. Contribution forms have received 1,087 submissions and ranked each of the four artists. team proposals based on how each met eight criteria – purpose, history, engagement, learning, audience, setting, appearance and concept.

Feedback from these community engagement sessions and online feedback forms were summarized and provided to the Committee for consideration as part of the final selection process. At a committee meeting in February 2021, each of the four artist teams presented their commemorative design to the committee. The committee then deliberated and selected Karyn Olivier’s proposal as the winning design for the Bethel Burying Ground Memorial.

“The city thanks the many community members who advocated for the Bethel Burying Ground Memorial and participated in the community engagement process to select Karyn Olivier’s winning design,” said city manager Tumar Alexander. “Thanks to your contribution and dedication, this public art memorial will honor those who rest at this historic site and the stories they represent.”

To learn more about the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial, visit: www.creativephl.org/public-art/bethel-burying-ground.

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