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A schoolhouse built atop a graveyard

The Little-Known History of a Frankford Historical Landmark

In 1885, when the foundations of the Wilmot Consolidated School began sinking into the earth, building inspectors and construction workers were befuddled-- until they discovered that the schoolhouse had been built on top of a forgotten cemetery.

For twenty years the colored children of Philadelphia's Frankford neighborhood received their education at the Wilmot School, a small but handsome stone building at the corner of Meadow and Cherry Streets. Little did the pupils or teachers know, however, that they recited the alphabet and learned to read while precariously perched atop the bones of their own long-dead ancestors.

It was no secret that there was something strange about the schoolhouse. It had been slowly sinking into the ground for months, if not years. By the summer of 1895 the sinking had caused numerous cracks to appear in the walls and it was finally decided that a contract would be awarded to a local builder to make repairs and renovations over the summer break. Those who inspected the structure all agreed that a pier had to be constructed under the northwest corner of the schoolhouse while the surrounding soft soil was replaced with firmer dirt and reinforced with mortar.

The quality of the work did not suit Thomas Allen, a building inspector, who immediately ordered the pier removed. While this support was being removed, workmen made their ghastly discovery.

Samuel Schaefer, one of the diggers, first uncovered some bones, although he paid little attention to them at the time. He continued to dig around the foundation until a new pier was ready to be put into place beneath the sagging corner of the schoolhouse. Allen inspected the work; he found it satisfactory, but just to be certain he grabbed a crowbar and thrust it into the soil to check its firmness.

To Allen's great surprise, the crowbar struck rotted wood as it sunk deep into the ground. Workers dug at the site with shovels and within a few minutes they had uncovered two human skeletons. Further excavation produced three more skeletons a few feet away, and a cluster of five skeletons nearby. After the tenth skeleton was unearthed, the workmen decided to call it quits for the day and the Board of Health was summoned to the scene.

Upon further investigation it was learned that the schoolhouse, erected in 1874, was built on ground that had once been part of the Frankford common cemetery. Years earlier Meadow Street was laid down, dividing the cemetery grounds into two halves. All of the graves were exhumed and reburied in the surviving portion of the cemetery-- or so everyone thought. In  a strange twist of fate, the school for colored children had been built atop the graves of the earliest black residents of Frankford, who were buried in unmarked burial plots on the outskirts of the graveyard.

Today, the Wilmot schoolhouse, or the J.C. King Educational Building, as it is also known, still stands in the Frankford section of Philadelphia and is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and while many visit the building each year in order to gaze upon its fine Italianate-style architecture, few are aware of the ghastly discovery made beneath the building's foundations one summer day in 1895.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 30, 1895

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