Unearthing History: Jubilee Marshall Researches Philadelphia’s Black Graveyards

Jubilee Marshall is majoring in history.

While many of her classmates spent their summers as interns in corporate cubicles, Jubilee Marshall '19 CLAS spent hers exploring cemeteries.

Jubilee, a History major, first became interested in studying Philadelphia’s black graveyards during her junior research seminar when her professor and faculty mentor, Whitney Martinko, PhD, introduced her to the case of Philadelphia’s Bethel Burying Ground.

In 1810, Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia bought a plot of land in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The land was used as a burial ground for half a century, but eventually filled to capacity and was sold back to the city. Its existence as a cemetery was then largely forgotten. The property was abandoned and finally sold to the city, which eventually developed a community playground on it.  In 2013, renovations on the playground revealed that thousands of interred bodies remained.

“As I started looking into Bethel Burying Ground, I found more and more sites with similar histories—black burial sites that had been paved over or turned into gas stations and were then rediscovered during the course of normal city construction,” Jubilee says. “It raised questions that I wanted to be able to answer.”  

Jubilee applied for and received a Villanova Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which provides financial support for student summer research. She then got to work.

“‘Where were black people—free or enslaved—buried in Philadelphia before black churches were formed in the 1790s? Were they buried in public lots? On the grounds of white churches? When burial lots had to close, what happened to the bodies?’ Those were some of my questions,” she says.

She visited old cemeteries and pored over archived records. She intends to incorporate these findings as well as her ideas for commemoration and memorialization in her senior thesis.

Jubilee’s ongoing research project is not the only thing that will keep her busy during her senior year at Villanova. She is a History Communication Fellow for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest. In addition to her History major, she is pursuing a concentration in Peace and Justice as well as minors in Political Science and Economics.