The hard-fought struggle for dignified and documented African American burials in Philadelphia.
Like NW Philly’s Laurel Hill Cemetery, the similarly historic Eden Cemetery out in Collingdale includes the graves of many luminaries relocated from other interments in the city. The key difference however is quite shocking. While new cemeteries like Laurel Hill “planted” long-dead local celebrities as a marketing ploy, over at Eden, African American families were scrambling to move the bodies of their loved ones out of the city before graverobbers sold them as cadavers to Jefferson Medical School. 😱😱😱
The scheme at Lebanon Cemetery in South Philly was so egregious, the Philadelphia Press reported “thousands” were taken, and declared the cemetery “almost empty” from constant desecrations. At the same time, pressure from local industries eager to build new plants and factories ultimately succeeded in having the land condemned, ironically, for overcrowding. By 1901, the Board of Health had ordered Lebanon’s closure, and remaining residents were relocated to the newly-established Eden Cemetery outside the city in adjoining Delaware County.
Despite loud and ugly community pushback, Eden Cemetery rose up to provide a dignified, permanent resting place for Philadelphia’s most prominent African American citizens, and also multitudes of everyday people living no less impactful lives in their own local communities. This month’s “Philadelphia Story” (page 7) highlights the importance of families, businesses and legacies built despite generations of racial terror and civil rights violations.
Historian Bob McNulty traces the life of one of Eden Cemetery’s less famous – but no less fascinating — occupants. As a career hospitality worker in 19th century Philadelphia, Nicholas Smith Bowen rubbed shoulders with all manner of VIP’s: presidents, generals, celebrities, and even authors like Poe and Dickens. In an 1881 Inquirer interview about meeting Lafayette, Bowen was asked if he’d ever “been a slave” to which he sharply replied while he hadn’t “enjoyed the blessing” personally, just living through it had been traumatizing enough.
Today, Bowen finds rest among other African Americans whose lives continue to inspire, including:
- Octavius Catto, an early civil rights leader murdered for trying to vote
- Internationally-acclaimed singer and social reformer Marian Anderson
- Abolitionist and entrepreneur James Forten
- William Still, aka the “Father of the Underground Railroad”
- Track & Field star John Taylor, the first African-American Olympic Gold Medalist
- Reverend Charles A. Tindley, author of the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”
In addition to graves, there are monuments here, as well. One commemorates local African American soldiers who died in combat during WWI, and others honor great achievers like the pitcher who threw the first perfect game in Black history, and the woman who helped found Philadelphia’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority (a historic, prestigious Black sisterhood).
There are also glaring omissions: somewhere in these 53 pastoral acres lies the unmarked grave of five child victims from the 1985 MOVE bombing. This painful event had a profound effect on Philadelphia’s politics, race relations, and our collective self-image as a city. While it’s not surprising that some people would want to forget this past, remembering is an important step in healing and understanding.
With this in mind, Eden Cemetery has recently launched an ambitious effort to digitize its burial archives for public access. So far, volunteers with the African American Genealogy Group of Philadelphia have logged more than 10,000 entries – every listing a unique piece of the cultural tapestry that is our city’s history.
HELP NEEDED! Please consider donating to this impactful project that helps keep the lived stories of local African American people and communities from vanishing forever. The Board of Historic Eden Cemetery seeks to raise $75,000 to appropriately document and preserve their vast records for present and future generations.
Learn more in Eden Cemetery’s GoFundMe campaign, which has been quietly inching towards its goal since 2020. We can’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate Black History Month, than with a contribution that supports this important community effort.
Eden Cemetery — an exceptional monument to America’s Civil Rights story and Philadelphia’s 7th Ward, whose many residents are buried here. Graves span from 1721 to the present, making Eden the oldest continuously-operating African American cemetery in the north (it’s also a Black-owned business).
1434 Springfield Road
Collingdale, PA 19023
Open everyday from 8:30AM to 4:30PM
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This post is a brief summary based on an excellent article researched and written by the wonderful Bob McNulty. Originally published May 18, 2014, updated January 2023.
Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.
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