Acculturation in an Urban Setting

The Archaeology of a Black Philadelphia Cemetery

By: Michael Parrington and Janet Wideman

Originally Published in 1986

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Archaeologists have traditionally been interested in the excavation of cemeteries, an interest spurred by the rich grave goods found in many burial sites. Grave goods represent an expres­sion of the feelings of the living at the time of death, and also the burial customs prevalent in a par­ticular society. Interpretation of the significance of burial offerings and customs may give an insight into the beliefs and world views of a so­ciety. The First African Baptist Church Cemetery site in Philadel­phia, dating to the first half of the 19th century, afforded an opportu­nity to study these factors and the question of acculturation among urban free blacks.

Historical Background

The cemetery was first discovered by archaeologists from John Milner Asso­ciates, who were monitoring exca­vation work being carried out for the construction of a commuter tunnel in center city Philadelphia in November 1980. When the end of a wooden coffin was exposed by an earth-moving machine, the site was sealed over with concrete to prevent looting and further damage to the burial. Subsequent historical research established that the site had been used as a burial ground by a black church from 1824 until 1842. Research into Board of Health records revealed the names of over 70 individuals who were in­terred at the burial ground, which was associated with the First Af­rican Baptist Church, a group formed in 1809. There were many gaps in this information, however, as the Board of Health death records for this period are fragmen­tary and incomplete.

After the initial historical re­search was completed the cemetery site was declared eligible to the National Register of Historic Places. As such, this determination afforded the site legal protection from any damage or destruction caused by federally funded redevel­opment. When it became apparent, in 1982, that proposed improve­ ments to the Vine Street Ex­pressway and a proposal to build a high-rise office building would de­stroy the burial ground, it became necessary to excavate the site to prevent its destruction without an adequate record being made. The owners of the property, the Rede­velopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia, entered into a con­tract with John Milner Associates to carry out this work. Funding for the project was provided by the Re­development Authority, the Fed­eral Highway Administration, the Pennsylvania Department of Trans­portation, the William Penn Foun­dation and the Barra Foundation.

On most sites, because of time or financial restraints it is only pos­sible to excavate a sample of the archaeological deposits. At the First African Baptist Church site, how­ever, because of the sensitive na­ture of the archaeological deposits, i.e.. human burials. it was neces­sary to excavate the site completely and to remove all of the burials. In order to carry out this task effi­ciently, historical research was needed in order to pinpoint the lo­cation and parameters of the ceme­tery. A deed survey of 1825 is the first document to show a clear asso­ciation between the First African Baptist Church and the Eighth and Vine Streets site (Fig. 2). This map shows the church located on two lots (lots 15 and 16), with Henry Simmons, who was the pastor of the church, in possession of the property to the east (lot 17). Thirty-five years later, in 1860. the Hexamer and Locher map of Phila.- deiphia shows no trace of the First African Baptist Church. The eastern of their two former lots is occupied by a safe factory, and the western lot has become the hack yards of houses that front onto Chester Street (Fig. 3).

This cartographic evidence showed clearly the location of the church property and its subsequent use as a safe factory. Over the course of a century and a half, how­ever, modifications were made to the location of features such as streets, and it was difficult to relate the position of historic sites to the cartographic evidence. This was the case at Eighth and Vine Streets, where the entire area had been disrupted successively by the laying out of Ridge Avenue, the widening of Vine Street, and more recently the work of building the commuter tunnel. While the approximate lo­cation of the cemetery was indi­cated by the burial found in 1980, there was no way of knowing how much of the burial ground had been disturbed by the construction work for the tunnel, and by the various construction-related activi­ties that had taken place there since it ceased to be used as a cemetery in the 1840s.

Excavating the Site

In order to define the extent of the cemetery it was necessary to relocate some of the later historic features of the area. Using heavy machinery to strip off the blacktop which covered the site and to remove the layers of fill beneath (Fig. I), a substantial stone wall aligned north-south was uncovered. The location of this wall coincided with the postulated position of the west wall of the safe factory. The discovery of this wall provided the datum point that enabled the pre­cise location of the lots occupied by the First African Baptist Church to he determined. Comparison of the two historic maps showed that the west wall of the safe factory was aligned along the boundary be­tween the two lots occupied by the First African Baptist Church.

Further machine excavations demonstrated that the area to the east of the wall was the basement of the structure, and it had been deeply disturbed. No burials had survived in this area, if indeed any had ever been made there. The presence of the basement did, how­ever, prove that the wall was the west wall of the building and there was a good possibility of burials surviving in Lot 16 to the west of the wall, which had always been an open area. The 1860 Hexamer and Locher map shows this area as backyard space (Fig. 3).

Machine excavations in what was determined to he lot 16 showed that the northern part of the lot was relatively disturbed. Concrete bol­lards, from when the area had been used as a parking lot. had pene­trated three feet or so below grade level. There was also a great deal of building rubble mixed with mid-19th century ceramics over this portion of the site. This sug­gested that a structure had been demolished in this area. probably during the time period indicated by the ceramics. When the rest of the building rubble was cleared by hand, the remains of a structure measuring approximately 15 feet by 20 feet were found (Fig. 4). The only building known to have been in this area was that used by members of the First African Bap­tist Church as their place of worship. Consequently it seems probable that the remains uncov­ered were those of the church, de­molished in the 1850s when the safe factory was built.

Machine excavations revealed further structural remains that ef­fectively defined the south end of the lot, and the portion of the west side of the lot which bad been dis­turbed by the tunnel cut. The re­mains of some disturbed burials, one of which was only one-and-a­half feet below grade level, were also found. At this stage machine excavations were halted and all fur­ther work was carried out by hand.

These burials were the first of over 140 which were subsequently excavated on the site, many inure than were indicated by the Board of Health records. Some of them had been disturbed when the wall of the safe factory was built (Fig. 5). Others had been removed and re­buried when three privies were constructed on the site in the mid-19th century for the use of the inhabitants of the Chester Street houses (Fig. 6). A few of the burials had suffered because of their prox­imity to the ground surface, and others had been partially removed when the tunnel cut was excavated along the west side of the cemetery.

The majority, however, were rea­sonably intact, although the friable condition of the bones in many cases made excavation difficult (Fig. 7).

Other problems were caused by the nature of the soil matrix in which the burials were made. During the 18th century the Eighth and Vine Streets area was part of an industrial site where ce­ramics and bricks were manufac­tured. The cemetery site itself was a clay pit until the late 18th-early 19th century, when it was filled in and the land reclaimed. The mate­rial used to reclaim the area was heavy clay fill, with an ample ad­mixture of mid to late 18th century trash. As a consequence of this, the excavators removing the burials had the problem of exposing and defining bones that were encased in a matrix of dense packed clay much harder than the bone. Despite these difficulties, it was possible, with painstaking effort, to define and then record and remove the hones successfully.

The excavation of the cemetery produced a valuable set of data on factors such as health and mortality among 19th century blacks in Phila­delphia. The analysis of human re­mains by a physical anthropologist can provide information on the health and nutritional level of an in­dividual, and also in some cases the probable cause of death. Initial work of this kind was carried out by Stephanie Pinter in John Milner Associates’ Philadelphia lab. More detailed research on the remains was undertaken by Dr. Lawrence Angel and his colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution. Of equal value is the information on burial customs forthcoming from the work. This aspect of the study pro­duced some significant insights into the survival of African customs among free blacks in Philadelphia, and forms the focus of the re­mainder of this paper.

The Question of Acculturation

The excavation of the First African Baptist Church Cemetery offered a rare op­portunity to study a segment of Philadelphia’s population which had been neglected until fairly re­cently. One area of research that immediately suggests itself is that of acculturation. As Robert Schuyler has pointed out, one of the most interesting themes in Afro-American archaeology con­cerns “the survival of Africanisms in material culture” (1980:1). In many cases it is difficult to distinguish be­tween the culture of ethnicity and the culture of poverty. Burial prac­tices, however, tend to be stable and persistent in most cultural systems. Consequently, the excava­tion of a cemetery associated with a particular ethnic group should pro­vide evidence for the survival of traditional customs.

Ethnographic evidence provides a wealth of information on African burial customs. Many of these stem from the notion of death as a gateway to the domain of the spirits. Since the human soul is thought to be immortal, death is conceived of as the beginning of the journey of the soul from the phys­ical body to the all important spiri­tual realm (Mbiti 1%9:149-165). This ideology is based on the belief that within every object dwells an individual force or ‘spirit’ that governs its existence. This in­dwelling force or soul cannot be re­duced to mechanistic laws of physics or chemistry, but is con­ceived of as being separate and dis­tinct from matter. Concern with the welfare of this `vital force’ or soul is focal to an understanding of tradi­tional African attitudes towards death. Although this concept has been found in various parts of the world and in diverse cultures, it apparently reached its highest dab-oration on the continent of Africa.

Enslaved blacks retained the burial customs of their ancestors without the benefit of an academic construct with which to analyze the religious or philosophical ideology on which these customs were based. Material objects were used to honor the spirit in the earth, guide it to the other world, and prevent it from wandering or re­turning to haunt survivors. These objects mark a persistent cultural link between Africa and the New World, and between enslaved and free blacks.

Despite the attempts of slave holders to destroy all vestiges of re­tained African culture, it is clear that traditional customs survived the impact of slavery in the New World. For example, the practice of grave decoration at ground level is widespread in the United States, and has been noted by historians, ethnographers, and archaeologists (Blassingame 1979:33, Jordan 1984:21, Combes 1974:5.3-58). In this custom personal items and the last vessel used by the deceased are placed on the grave. It is commonly accepted that this is an African custom that has survived in the New World, and in some instances it may have been transmitted to other cultural groups by blacks. Jordan, for example, shows a pic­ture of a white cemetery in Texas where a child’s grave is decorated with toys and furniture (1984: Fig. 2.7).

The Archaeological Evidence

In an urban environment, grave decorations are unlikely to re­main sacrosanct. At the First African Baptist Church Cemetery, the graveyard area had been dis­turbed in the 1850s when houses and a factory were built there. In the second half of the 20th century the area became a parking lot, further disturbing the site. No evi­dence for the practice of grace dec­oration survived these impacts. What evidence was found for Af­rican burial practices was all found at the level of the actual burial, ei­ther in or outside the coffin.

Traditional European arid Amer­ican Christian burial customs are relatively simple in comparison to sonic of those documented for other cultures. Normally, the inter­ment is made in a wooden coffin in which the deceased is laid out su­pine, with the hands near the thighs, and the head to the west. The majority of the burials at the First African Baptist Church Ceme­tery were consistent with the Christian tradition outlined above (Fig. 8). In a number of the burials, however, there were departures from this norm. In eight cases a single coin had been placed in the coffin (usually a penny near the head). In six instances a single shoe had been placed on the coffin lid, and in two other burials a ceramic plate was buried with the deceased in the stomach area (Fig. 9). There was also one example where an in­dividual appeared to have been buried on his side, and then slumped into a face down or semi-prone position (Fig. 10).

The practice of placing coins over the eyes of a dead person to keep them closed is well documented in many cultures. The fact that only a single coin was found in each burial would seem to preclude this expla­nation, however. In the classical world, a single coin was customarily placed in the mouth of the de­ceased in order to pay Charon’s fee for ferrying the dead across the River Styx. How this custom relates to the First African Baptist Church

Cemetery is uncertain. What is clear is that a widespread belief in the concept of death as a journey existed amongst blacks (Mbiti 1969:149-165; Handler and Lange 1978:183). In this context it may be that a single coin in a grave repre­sents the fee for the return of the spirit to the African homeland or possibly to keep the spirit from bothering the living. Shoes too can be seen in this symbolic light, as items required for this journey. Shoes also have connotations of power, as repre­sented by a black folk belief that the burial of a shoe (especially on a Monday) will keep the devil away (Puckett 1926:555). The shoe is also a good luck symbol, and assumes this role at weddings. Alternatively this custom could be seen as a symbolic attempt to hobble the dead and prevent their return to the land of the living.

The burial of a ceramic plate on the stomach of the deceased is a practice that appears to be relatively widespread in other cultures. Several examples of this custom are reported by Fremmer (1973:58­62). In this paper three archaeo­logically recorded instances of plates with burials are discussed, one in London, England, and two in Jamaica, all of which were white burials. A black burial with a ce­ramic saucer was reported from the late 19th-early 20th century Cedar Grove cemetery in Arkansas (Rose 1982:188), and a large fragment of a redware bowl found beneath the pelvis of slave burial at Newton Plantation, Barbados, may be an­other example of this phenomenon (Handler and Lange 1978:136).

Various explanations have been offered for this practice. It has been suggested that the custom was de­signed to prevent the body swelling after death and that salt was placed on the plate to accomplish this end. The salt may also have served to keep the devil away from the de­ceased (Fremmer 1973:60-61). It seems clear that the custom was relatively well known in England (Noel Hume 1974:169-172), and if the explanation offered above is ac­cepted, it is not hard to imagine that it could have been transmitted to blacks by English settlers in the West Indies and the United States.

An alternative explanation to the above is suggested by a variety of ethnographic sources, folklore, and oral histories. Among West Af­ricans it was common to place arti­facts in the grave with the deceased to he used for various purposes in the afterlife (Handler and Lange 1978:199-201). One function of this practice was to prevent the spirit of the dead from harming the living. This was achieved by placing the vessel last used by the deceased on the grave as it was thought that such objects contained the energy or essence of the departed (Thompson 1984:134).

Folklorists reiterate the idea that the vessel used by the deceased should go to the grave with them (Puckett 1926:104), as do oral ac­counts of black funerals recorded in the 1930s. In one account it was stated that guns were fired over the grave and then the body was low­ered in with “some food and a cup of coffee maybe” (Yetman 1972:84). Archaeology is unlikely to recover ceremonial aspects of human be­havior such as firing a gun over a grave. The placement of dishes in a grave, however, is an aspect of human activity that manifests itself unequivocally in the archaeological record. Two possible explanations for this action are suggested above. In the light of our present knowl­ edge it is uncertain if the custom represents a borrowing of English customs, a survival of African tradi­tion, or perhaps even a combina­tion of the two. Whatever the explanation, it is certainly an ex­ample of acculturation in action.

Although the precise function that this custom served is uncertain there is added interest in the fact that in one case (Fig. 9) the plate buried was a Chinese export porce­lain plate. This type of ceramic was a high status luxury item during this period, and not the kind of ar­tifact that might be expected to be associated with the individuals buried in the cemetery. A small portion of the plate was missing, however, so it may be that it had been discarded by some more pros­perous Philadelphian and was reused in the burial ritual carried out for the individual.

Another aspect of the cemetery site which requires discussion is the burial that was in a semi-prone po­sition. It is uncertain whether this individual was deliberately interred in this position, or if the remains were dislodged from the customary supine position on the way to the burial ground, or during the act of lowering the coffin into the grave. Prone burials are recorded in other excavated black cemeteries (Handler and Lange 1978:198; Rose 1982:113). The mundane possibility of post-mortem disturbance of the corpse is offered above as a possible explanation for this burial position. Another possibility which was also suggested for such a burial at Newton Plantation is that indi­viduals who possessed supernatural powers were buried face down (Handler and Lange 1978:198 – 199). This was apparently the prac­tice among the coastal Bantu of the Cameroons in West Africa, where those thought to have such powers (nyongo) were buried in the prone position (Ardener 1956:90). An­other explanation which comes from black folklore is that a murdered person should be buried face down in order to prevent the murderer from leaving the scene or, alternately, to prevent the dead from haunting the living (Puckett 1926:96,107). Whichever of these explanations is deemed correct, notwithstanding the possibility of an accidental cause for this deviant burial, it would appear to indicate the further survival of an African cultural tradition.

What is clear from the stuck of the First African Baptist Church cemetery is that a significant number of non-Christian burial customs are evident in the archaeo­logical record there. Although we are somewhat hampered by our lack of knowledge of contemporary African practices, in most cases these customs can he linked to an African parallel, suggesting the sur­vival of Africanisms in urban Phila­delphia. Acculturation has been defined as “those phenomena which result when groups of indi­viduals having different cultures come into continuous first hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield et al. 19:36:149-150). The impact and influence of Christianity on urban blacks is obvious in the conformity of most of the graves to the Christian tradition. The African in­fluence is apparent in the non-Christian traits discussed above. The physical evidence from the ex­cavations illustrates the degrees of mingling of the Anglo-Christian and African traditions among this group in 19th century Philadelphia. Herskovits produced a great deal of historical information to dispel the notion that the African in the New World was “a man without a past” (1958:1-3). It is clear from the cemetery excavations that urban blacks in early 19th century Phila­delphia withstood the attempts of whites to dispel their culture, car­ried it with them through the im­pact of slavery into freedom, and retained significant aspects of their past.”

The former members of the First African Baptist Church discussed above have made a valuable contri­bution to the history of blacks in Philadelphia. Upon completion of the analysis of the remains of these individuals, they will be reburied with due reverence at Eden Ceme­tery in Delaware County, Pennsyl­vania. There the grave site will be commemorated with a suitable me­morial to the memory of these long dead Philadelphians who are gone but not forgotten.

Cite This Article

Parrington, Michael and Wideman, Janet. "Acculturation in an Urban Setting." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 1 (March, 1986): -. Accessed July 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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