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Octavius Catto and the forgotten African-American heroes that lie in Eden Cemetery

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Many unsung heroes like Octavius Catto are laid to rest in this Collingdale burial ground

Photos by Melissa Romero

This week, a monument of local civil rights activist Octavius Valentine Catto was unveiled at Philadelphia City Hall, becoming the city’s first monument dedicated to a specific African American. Meanwhile, the remains of Catto, who was shot and killed on election day in 1871, lie 10 miles away just outside of city limits, in a burial ground called Eden Cemetery.

Some 90,000 African Americans are buried here, including Catto and other prominent people with impressive resumes to their name. There’s architect Julian Abele, the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design who went onto play a major role in designing the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The headstone of Marian Anderson, the renowned opera singer who lived in Graduate Hospital can be found here, too. And abolitionist William Still, known as the Father of the Underground Railroad for helping hundreds of slaves escape to freedom, is also laid to rest here.

The problem is finding out exactly where all of these notable citizens are buried among the cemetery’s 53 acres.

The Octavius V. Catto Memorial Fund installed a new headstone for Catto in 2007.

Little is known about the history of Eden Cemetery, despite its immense size and notable citizens buried within its 23 sections. But its ties to African-American Philadelphians of the 19th century were considered significant enough for it to be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

Charlette Caldwell was fascinated by Eden Cemetery’s little-known history when she learned about it while studying historic preservation and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. But when Caldwell began to dig deeper into the cemetery’s history as part of her thesis, she realized that there were still plenty of missing gaps, even inaccuracies in the historical nomination.

“It talks about Eden Cemetery being the oldest African American cemetery in the country,” Caldwell says. “That’s not true.”

What is true about Eden Cemetery is that it’s actually a collection of multiple African-American burial grounds that were first based in Philadelphia.

In the early 1900s, a man named Jerome Bacon led efforts to create a final resting place for deceased African Americans who had been buried in abandoned cemeteries, potter’s fields, and churchyards throughout Philly. At the time, the city’s two African-American cemeteries, Lebanon and Olive, had been condemned after falling into disrepair, forcing all of the graves to uncovered and reinterred at Eden.

The town of Collingdale wasn’t pleased about this move, and protested having “a colored burial ground" in their community by blocking the gates to the cemetery on the day of the first ceremonial burial. According to Eden Cemetery’s own historical recap, a headline in the local paper the next day read, “Collingdale Has More Race Troubles, Town Council Has No Use for a Colored Funeral, No African Need Apply.”

Eventually, the case was dropped, allowing Eden Cemetery to continue its mission to provide a place of rest, where African Americans could be “be buried with dignity and respect.” Catto, originally buried in Lebanon Cemetery, was one of the many bodies reinterred here.

Eden Cemetery ultimately became, as Caldwell discovered in her research, the only available place for condemned black sites in Philadelphia in the beginning of the 20th century.

Today, Eden Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is maintained by a small group of long-time volunteers like Sheila Jones. Jones and others have been working over the past few years to bring more attention to the historic cemetery and the unsung heroes who are buried here. But there’s still work to do.

“Right now, they’re trying to identify everybody who’s buried there,” said Caldwell. “And they’re don’t have enough people to take care of the landscaping—it’s a really, really big site.”

There’s also the not-so-insignificant fact that after serving as a peaceful place of rest for African Americans for more than 100 years, Eden Cemetery is running out of room. Asks Caldwell, “What do you do when a cemetery is full capacity?”

Eden Cemetery is considering turning a receiving vault into a small exhibit or museum highlighting the burial ground’s history.

Turning it into a museum is one hope for the cemetery down the road. As the number of available plots dwindle, the site could shift into a more historic resource, suggests Caldwell. One idea, for example, is to turn the structure that originally served as a receiving vault into a small exhibit or museum.

Caldwell says, “They want to be able to make it a museum so that people who live in the neighborhood can come and live and learn about its connection to Philadelphia.”

It’s perhaps the most reasonable next step for the cemetery, and one that makes sense now as the stories of heroes like Catto begin to garner the attention they deserve, albeit decades after their deaths. This is, after all, where history lies.