Philadelphia has a long history of building over its cemeteries or moving them out of the city altogether. Most recently, on Palm Sunday of this year, a portion of the African Friends to Harmony Cemetery was reinterred at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.
As more and more of these burial sites leave Philadelphia for good, we should take a moment to think about what we are losing beyond the remains and grave markers. These aren’t just resting places for the dead. They are reminders of a long history of the struggle among the living over segregation and civil rights in Philadelphia.
For much of the city’s history, African Americans had few spaces where they could bury their loved ones, with many being laid to rest in one of Philadelphia’s unconsecrated potters’ fields. But what we often fail to remember are the extreme policies of segregation that caused African Americans to create their own church graveyards and public cemeteries in the 19th century.
Take the truly heartbreaking case of Henry Jones in 1875, which went all the way to the State Supreme Court. Jones was a well-known caterer in Philadelphia, among a number of prominent African American men of his day to have success in that industry. Born into slavery in Virginia, he travelled north as a young man and went on to start his large, successful catering business. His obituary published in the September 25, 1875, edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer described him as a “careful, attentive, honest, and skillful” man, who decided even before his death that he wanted to be buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery.
In April 1875, he and his wife, Margaret, received permission from William H. Boileau, a white real estate broker and Mount Moriah plot-holder, to use his lot in the cemetery. According to an April 5, 1876 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Boileau let Margaret Jones bury her sister Elizabeth in his lot at Mount Moriah earlier in 1875 without any objections from the cemetery. In the summer of 1875, Margaret and Henry set about decorating Henry’s future grave. They even hired a contractor recommended by the cemetery to install an iron gate around the plot and marble pillars with Henry’s full name etched into them.
On September 24, 1875, Henry Jones died from “congestion of the brain” at 60 years of age, leaving behind his wife, five children, and a substantial fortune.
The day after Henry’s death, Margaret made sure to send notice to Mount Moriah officials that she planned to hold his funeral on September 27. According to the legal plea that she and Boileau later made, an officer from the cemetery promised that the grave would be ready in time for the ceremony.
With this assurance, Margaret proceeded to advertise his funeral. An obituary published in the Inquirer the day after his death announced that a ceremony would take place at 11A.M. at his home at 206 South 12th Street, with a burial to follow afterward at Mount Moriah.
On the very day of the funeral, after a large group of mourners had already gathered at her home for the religious service, Margaret received an unexpected letter from the Mount Moriah superintendent. The note arrived just 15 minutes before the burial was supposed to take place.
The letter read: “Madam: I am in receipt of a note from you, requesting a grave to be dug in lot No. 48 in Mount Moriah cemetery. I am unable to comply with your request, because the lot in question is registered as belonging to William H. Boileau, and the rules of the company require me to act only under the orders of the registered owner. Very respectfully, H. P. Connell, Superintendent.”
Boileau hastily fired back to the “respectful” note: “Dear Sir: Please to let the bearer bury in the lot.”
Henry Jones’s funeral procession was still turned away when it reached the cemetery gates, blocked by the Mount Moriah Cemetery Association and some of its angry lot-holders. These protestors apparently made an initial statement in June 1875 to stop Boileau from transferring his plot to Margaret Jones. Their leader read: “We, the undersigned owners of lots in Mount Moriah Cemetery, having learned that a person of color has purchased from Mr. William H. Boileau a lot in said cemetery for the purpose of interment, and demands a requisite transfer of the same from the association, do hereby protest against the same, and request that your approval of the such transfer be withheld.” The superintendent, however, neglected to tell Margaret about any issue with the burial until the day of the funeral.
The humiliating denial of Henry’s funeral procession on September 27 sparked outrage throughout Philadelphia. The African-American newspaper, The Christian Recorder, opined the following day, “Yesterday it disgraced its name and might with utmost fitness have been called, Adelphobia, Brotherly-hate, and not Philadelphia, Brotherly-love; but to day it honors its name, and with shame remembers the time when its churches pulled Black men off their knees, when its mobs, murdered and burned, and when its street cars, refused admittance even to soldiers maimed by rebel shot.” The author cited the many gains made during Reconstruction, however, and was confident that the court would uphold the rights of Black Philadelphians, dead and living.
The deliberations lasted months in the court case that followed, during which time Henry Jones’s body was stored in a vault at Lebanon Cemetery in what is today West Passyunk area of South Philadelphia. On Christmas Day of 1875 several Philadelphia newspapers reported that the Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of Margaret Jones. Mount Moriah immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, claiming that the cemetery should have the right to prevent Boileau from transferring his plot.
Henry’s remains stayed in the vault, unburied for yet a few more months. According to the April 5, 1876, edition of the Inquirer, Margaret hired a watchman to make sure that no one disturbed his corpse. Grave-robbing was a common practice during this time as a way for medical schools to obtain corpses for dissection. But what Margaret feared most was interference from protesters seeking to personally harm the Jones family because of the notoriety of the case. To add to Margaret’s grief, her other sister, Mary Cooper, died during this time and was also refused burial by Mount Moriah.
On March 3, 1876, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court delivered the opinion that Mount Moriah had no right to refuse burial to Henry Jones, but the decision came a little too late for Margaret. Despite her victory in court, she had chosen to bury her husband and sister Mary at Lebanon Cemetery instead.
On April 5, 1876, The Philadelphia Inquirer published her March 25 letter explaining the reason for this decision, namely the continuing frustration that Mount Moriah caused her. “There are people at the cemetery who threaten to tear down the flowers I have planted in the lot and to injure the grave should my husband be buried there. I have suffered so long already that I feel I cannot bury him there and live in suspense.”
Despite Margaret’s determination to bury her family at Lebanon Cemetery, it is unclear whether Henry’s funeral there ever actually took place. Burial records at St. James the Less Episcopal Churchyard indicate that she paid $250 to purchase Vault 2 for her husband in October, 1876, and his grave remains there to this day.
St. James pastor Andrew Kellner says that Henry Jones was the first African American to be buried in the church’s cemetery, and more members of his family eventually followed. At least one of Henry’s daughters, Mary L. Lewis, is buried there, and in November of 1907, Philadelphia death records indicate that an 85 year-old African American widow named Margaret Jones had her funeral at St. James the Less as well. It looks like Margaret, who, by many accounts, masterfully ran Henry’s catering business after his death, was able to rest alongside her husband in an integrated cemetery, one that was even recognized for accepting African Americans in W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro.
This sounds like a satisfactory ending to Henry and Margaret’s story, but what made her change her mind about Lebanon Cemetery? Margaret’s letter in the Inquirer offers some insight. She claimed that she only turned to Mount Moriah in the first place because the African-American cemeteries in Philadelphia were either full or “about to be cut through by streets.”
Sadly, these thoughts from 1876 foreshadowed the continued impact that racism and urban expansion would have on Lebanon Cemetery just a few decades later. As Margaret Jones had predicted 23 years earlier, the City of Philadelphia approved the expansion of roads through Lebanon Cemetery in 1903 and soon began its removal. The remains were re-interred at the newly built Eden Cemetery.
If Margaret had chosen Lebanon Cemetery, this transition to Eden Cemetery would have meant yet another funeral for Henry Jones at a graveyard steeped in civil rights debates.
When Eden Cemetery was set to open in 1902 in Collingdale, just west of the city, local residents filed an injunction against it because, according to the August 30, 1902, edition of the Inquirer, they objected to the African-American cemetery and its cemetery corporation “composed of colored men.” On August 11, some white residents even blocked the entrance to the cemetery, delaying the first of the funerals to take place there.
Lebanon Cemetery was the first site to be reinterred at Eden, beginning a long tradition of removal of Philadelphia’s African-American burial grounds to suburban landscapes. But as we continue this utilitarian tradition for the sake of urban development, it is worth remembering the struggle that went into ensuring that people like Henry Jones received a dignified burial in the city they loved.