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‘Something has to be done’: Telling the story of one of the oldest black cemeteries in St. Louis

Overgrown greenery almost entirely obscures a gravestone at which a giant white paper mache heart is positioned.
Provided by Jennifer Colten
At Washington Park Cemetery, overgrown greenery almost entirely obscures a gravestone at which a giant white paper mache heart is positioned.

When Terri Williams’ daughters brought home their Black History Month assignment from school, she noticed most of the historical figures were entertainers or athletes. 

This contrasted with the uniquely heroic lives she saw represented by the figures interred at Washington Park Cemetery — people like Ira Cooper, the first black police lieutenant in St. Louis, George L. Vaughn, the attorney who fought for J.D. Shelley in the Shelley vs. Kraemer court case that eliminated courts’ abilities to enforce housing segregation.

William’s learned about such figures while researching the cemetery for the new exhibit “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery Its People and Place,” which opens at The Sheldon this weekend.

“I cannot express enough to my daughters how special they are as young black women and I think our young people need to understand how special we are. And their value does not need to be placed on a celebrity status or anything like that,” said Williams, who brought her daughters along for some of her research. “It’s ‘how are you willing to contribute to the world? What legacy are you going to leave behind? And I think a lot of these people have left positive legacies that should be honored.”

Williams' work is part of a project that intends to honor the lives and final resting place of those buried at Washington Park Cemetery, a formerly prestigious cemetery for African-Americans. Over several decades the cemetery has been ignored, disregarded, and in at least one case literally paved over after bodies were disinterred. 

The cemetery’s treatment reflects the mistreatment of African-Americans occurring throughout the St. Louis region. Nearly a century ago, whites opposed the cemetery’s construction. In the 1950s, officials had thousand bodies disinterred to make way for Interstate 70.

Photographer Jennifer Colten arrived on site in the early 1990s, when St. Louis Lambert International Airport took control of the northern section of the cemetery for an airport expansion and to the construction of its portion of MetroLink.  

For Colten, the cemetery's embattled history is connected to the region's current social inequalities.

“The erasure of the community for whom this was an important place has just been glossed over,” she said.

A gravesite is marked with a sign that reads please save thank you.
Credit Provided by Jennifer Colten
A gravesite is marked with a sign.

Colten, who’s white, said the consistent disregard for the cemetery reflects the entrenched racism of contemporary society. The larger culture doesn’t value the lives or resting places of African-Americans, she said.

“I think the story of this cemetery are connected to like stories, similar stories, all throughout the country,” said Colten. “There are instances of African-American cemeteries that have been totally ignored, disregarded, gone to disarray and those stories are really representative of larger issues.”

Colten's exhibit, her first at the Sheldon, will also include maps and historical documents illustrating the site’s history. Artist Denise Ward Brown will show three video pieces to reflect that history. Sculptor Dail Chambers, whose grandmother is buried there, produced three dimensional  to be displayed alongside the video and pictures.

Colten said the additional work was needed to present a “rounder, fuller presentation of the work” to better encapsulate the land’s long history.

“I think it’s really essential that the kinds of things that happen in seemingly small areas, in small communities, are really important telling stories to much larger problems we face in our country that we have to pay attention to,” she said.

Graves outlined in rectangular red spraypaint during relocation efforts.
Credit Provided by Jennifer Colten
Graves were marked with paint during relocation efforts.

Cemetery owner Kevin Bailey feels a deep connection to the land he purchased in 2009. His father is buried onsite, as well as other members of his family.

“Any big event, especially when the weather permitted, whether it was graduation, Easter, Father’s Day, or whatever, we always ended up at Washington Park,” Bailey said. “So for 38, 39 — years any time I thought about Dad or had any reference to a father in my life — it was tied to Washington Park Cemetery.”

A phlebotomist and single father, Bailey is unable to devote much time to cemetery upkeep. So a number of dedicated volunteers have emerged as semi-permanent groundskeepers. Over the past decade they’ve beat back the encroaching brush, dragged tires, trash and lawn debris from grave sites, and begun resetting headstones.

Dan Newman, who has volunteered for a handful of years, regularly does upkeep on the cemetery to honor those whose relatives are buried there.

“People are people and they deserve to have a nice cemetery that’s taken care of that they can come visit,” Newman said.

Colten said her first attempts to document the space were occasionally met with distrust over her motives, given that she’s a white woman documenting a black cemetery. But she said that has changed, as she’d remained dedicated to the graveyard’s narrative for nearly two decades.

Over time, Colten’s photographs have subtly shifted their content. Many of the images that will be on display at the Sheldon focus on her original exposure to the site. Some pictures capture the disinterment of graves. Other images capture headstones emerging from the overgrowth cleared by volunteers. Newer images focus on the remaining undergrowth that spreads through still unclaimed acreage.

Colten hopes the photographs inspire people to support efforts to revitalize and protect the Washington Park Cemetery, and also motivate them to look for other instances of systemic injustice in development and land use projects.

“Some of the themes that I’m really interested in is resiliency,” she said. “The resiliency of people to really endure in spite of a lot of turmoil and injustice.”

Several gravestones slouch toward the ground, overshadowed by a looming billboard with a highway in the background.
Credit Provided by Jennifer Colten

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold