Police were called out Thursday to investigate an apparent hate crime at a South Philadelphia playground where neighbors organized to honor a historic African-American burial ground sitting just beneath the asphalt.
On Thursday afternoon, firefighters arrived at Weccacoe Playground to remove an African-American baby doll hanging from a telephone wire by a miniature noose placed around its neck. Both items were placed into a brown paper bag as evidence.
It was not immediately clear when the doll was tied to the wire. Around noon, a neighbor alerted city officials after her toddler spotted the faux lynching as they were leaving the playground at Fourth and Catharine Streets.
Detectives and city officials were hopeful a pair of cameras posted inside the playground would offer more details and reveal who was responsible. “If we catch him, we’re gonna do everything we can do to lock him up,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “It’s disgusting, disgraceful, and despicable.”
Any charges would become aggravated if the incident is determined to be a hate crime. “There’s no doubt that is is a pretty intentional act,” said Rue Landau, executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commissions, which also is investigating.
Thursday night, Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, posted on Instagram that "neighborhood boys came forward to admit they hung the doll. [They] were Black and White and under the age of 13. Their story corroborates the surveillance video. They found the doll and thought it was `creepy.' So in typical boy fashion, they decided to creep people out with it."
In the post, Tyler added that the boys "sadly ... had no idea of the ugly racial past of lynchings. ... This is why we must ensure that our memorial to the ancestors buried here is one that also teaches children."
In June, the city announced plans to memorialize the Bethel Burying Site, an early-19th-century cemetery sitting below a section of Weccacoe Playground that includes a former meeting space and part of a tennis court. Archaeologists discovered that thousands of African-American congregants of Mother Bethel AME Church were buried there. At the time, African-Americans could not be buried within city limits. The cemetery was positioned just south of the border in what was then called Southwark Township.
The burial ground is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.
Shortly after the discovery, neighbors, several of whom walked over to the playground, said it was no accident that an African-American doll was hanging by a noose above part of the proposed site for the memorial.
“It seems like it would be a pretty incredible coincidence,” said Delia Anemone Raab-Snyder, the mother who called the city about the doll Thursday afternoon.
“The actions speak for themselves,” said Lucy Erdelac, acting executive director of the Queen Village Neighbors Association.
Tyler called the scene at Weccacoe disturbing even if there is no connection between the doll and the burial ground.
“There is no message that is more chilling than to have a noose hung anywhere, let alone with a baby doll,” said Tyler, who is African-American.
Cornelius Moody, who is also African-American, agreed.
“After a certain point, I gave up the illusion that I could find a neighborhood in Philadelphia that would feel totally safe for black and brown people,” Moody said as he stood mere feet away from the noose.
Tom MacDonald of the WHYY Staff also contributed to this article.
This article was updated to include Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler's Instagram post Thursday night.