As volunteers raked leaves and picked up trash, Jean Warrington pointed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s unmistakable visage on a mural overlooking the Fairhill Burial Ground. The rowhouse mural tells the story not of King – but of Lucretia Mott, a 19th century abolitionist whose remains are interred here at the historic cemetary alongside fellow Philly abolitionist Robert Purvis.
“MLK was a warrior for justice as were these two 100 years earlier,” says Warrington, the executive director of Historic Fairhill, a nonprofit group that helps beautify the resting place of these human rights activists.
Purvis helped found the American Anti-Slavery Slavery in 1833, with the help of Mott’s husband. Meanwhile, Mott herself was one of 18 women, both white and black, who formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1838, anti-black rioters descended upon a national convention for female abolitionists in Philly, destroying the newly built Pennsylvania Hall. In a scene rendered on the mural overlooking her interment place, Mott and the sisterhood of abolitionists famously linked arms to protect black women at the convention from being attacked as they made their escape.
Mott would have been 225 years old on Jan. 3. Her birthday may not be a celebrated national holiday, but to the group of volunteers who braved the cold Monday to help beautify the garden and grounds at Fairhill cemetery – one of North Philly’s most treasured green spaces – the significance is not lost.
“It’s always freezing, and we always think nobody will come out, but they always do,” Warrington says, noting this is the 10th year of the MLK Jr. Day cleanup at the site.
Chris Scott is a 25-year-old program leader at Grumblethorpe Youth Volunteers, a Germantown-based service group that teaches life skills and urban farming to teenagers. He and his brother, Khyrel, are among the dozen volunteers raking leaves around the low-lying gravestones and picking up trash that has blown from the street.
“When I was younger, I used to volunteer on MLK Jr. Day at my school, painting walls and doing other day-of-service activities,” Scott says. “It’s nice to come back to that.”
The volunteer crew takes a break around a small woodfire, where one of Historic Fairhill’s groundskeepers passes around red cups of hot apple cider. Among the group are teens from Grumblethorpe. Across the street, off-duty officers from the 25th Police District are tidying up a vacant lot on the corner of Germantown and Indiana Ave.
One of the traditions of the MLK Jr. Day cleanup at Fairhill is about to begin. Volunteers pull pieces of paper from a hat, on which are printed excerpts of Dr. King’s sermons and speeches. They take turns reading aloud, and then they break into song.
While some activists have argued for increased demonstrations to honor the late civil rights leader, such community service observances on MLK Jr. Day have a devoted following in Philly’s neighborhoods.
“If you’re meant to protest, then protest,” says Sechita Elliot, a lifelong neighborhood resident who serves as a gardener and youth leader at the cemetery. “That’s what MLK was meant to do. But he also supported people coming together as a community – and that’s a form of protest, too.”
The 300-year-old Quaker burial ground sits in the heart of North Philly’s 19133 zip code, which ranks among the lowest income in Pennsylvania. Over the years, the historic site has been plagued by everything from violent crime to scrap metal theft. But with every year that passes, Elliott, a third-generation Fairhill resident who now raises her children here, says she sees the neighborhood getting better, safer and more family-oriented – and with no small thanks to the community anchor the burial ground has provided.
In the warmer seasons, Elliott and others steward youth gardeners from the area to tend to the cemetery garden. The crop yields everything from tomatoes to bok choy to watermelons. When not hosting visitors from all over the country, the cemetery also serves as a neighborhood hangout and a venue for community events of every stripe.
“We get a bad name [in Fairhill],” Elliott says. “But we’re a strong community.”