Reports of Historic Black Graveyard Underneath Proposed Apartments Won’t Slow Contractor’s Plans for Development

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African-American Cemetery
A car wash was previously built over the historic graveyard before Buckley’s complex demolished it to make way for new apartments. (Photo by Charles Fox)

A Philadelphia contractor said he has no plans of halting construction on what’ll become new apartments, even after learning his latest development might be built atop what is believed to be West Philly’s oldest African-American cemetery.

Until last week, contractor Vaughan Buckley said he had no idea the site of his proposed apartment complex on 4125 Chestnut St. could have human remains below it, West Philly Local.com reported. Reports of an alleged graveyard at the recently-demolished Chestnut Wash N’ Lube car wash spread quickly after a Philadelphia Enquirer article published last week.

Archaeologists who studied the site say the cemetery, which has ties to nearby Monumental Baptist Church, was first acquired in 1826 as open land, and later used as the resting place for Black residents. The burial area is believed to extend beneath the old car wash, leaving archaeologists concerned that excavation for the new complex could disturb or even expose some of the human remains.

“… We know that four historic maps between 1872 and 1901 identify this as a graveyard,” Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, told the Philadelphia Enquirer. “A [newspaper] article in 1885 states unequivocally that there are burials. There is no question. This is an African American cemetery.”

The forum raised concerns about the impending construction in a letter to the Department of Licenses and Inspections last week and suggested consultants get involved. Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for L&I, said the agency contacted Buckley after receiving Mooney’s letter and advised caution about the potential graves. She noted, however, that the department has no jurisdiction to interfere with the project, as Buckley had already been given the go-ahead to start construction, West Philly Local.com reported.

Buckley has promised to be careful of the possible remains but said the revelation isn’t enough for him to consider stopping construction.

“… Consultants and other professionals in this field are being contacted and interviewed by my team and I, to help us throughout this process,” the contractor said in a statement last week.

However, Buckley seemingly tired to downplay the impact this construction project could potentially have on the graves.

“We’re not talking about going in and desecrating an existing cemetery,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not considerate of the situation … It just means it’s a [former] car wash that potentially has human remains underneath it.”

Officials with Monumental Baptist Church haven’t yet commented on the matter. The new complex is expected to have underground parking.

A Baptist church in Bethesda, Md. is facing a similar battle after local contractors announced plans to build a parking garage over a historic cemetery there.

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