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‘Even in death Black lives matter’: Upcoming documentary explores the story of Greenwood Cemetery

The Greenwood Cemetery on Monday, June 5, 2023, in Hillsdale.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale on June 5.

Greenwood Cemetery has always been part of LaCreshia Griffin-Pope’s family history.

The St. Louis filmmaker’s grandfather Eli Griffin and maternal great-grandmother Lamiza Anderson are buried there. For many years, Griffin-Pope didn’t know exactly where they were in the cemetery, but her curiosity and research during the pandemic paid off, and she found them. However, her curiosity went beyond her own family’s story. Established in 1874, Greenwood Cemetery is believed to be one of the oldest historically Black cemeteries in the St. Louis region.

Griffin-Pope teamed up with the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association to produce a documentary about the cemetery that was nearly forgotten. "The Story of Greenwood" centers on the cemetery's origin, decline, restoration and legacy. St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Griffin-Pope about the film ahead of its fall release.

This interview was edited and condensed for context and clarity.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: What was it about Greenwood Cemetery that led you to decide to make this film?

LaCreshia Griffin-Pope: My grandfather and my maternal great-grandmother are both buried there. So fast-forward to 2020 during the pandemic, I was like, maybe I should look into it again. I started doing some research, trying to find online where he was buried, trying to see if I could find plot information. And I found it. Once I found that information, and I'm just like, man this is — the story of it is really, really significant to St. Louis and Black history and history in general.

Lewis-Thompson: What's the story behind the cemetery, and what led to its decline?

Griffin-Pope: Black people were not able to be buried in the white cemeteries. Cemeteries were segregated. Everything was segregated at the time. There was a need. Black people wanted to bury their loved ones with dignity. Families would come during the holidays or even just whenever they just wanted to come they would just have picnics at Greenwood near their family gravesites. The families did the upkeep. So, when Greenwood was started there was no perpetual care fund or anything put in place. When families paid for their plots, that's all they paid for. In the beginning, it worked out really, really great. It was really successful, but with a lot of things when desegregation happened during the Civil Rights era, it kind of started the downfall of Greenwood Cemetery. Black people were able to have other options to be buried. With that decline, the family that owned the cemetery, they also didn't see value in it anymore as well.

 St. Louis filmmaker LaCreshia Griffin-Pope, middle, conducts an interview for her upcoming documentary.
LaCreshia Griffin-Pope
St. Louis filmmaker LaCreshia Griffin-Pope, middle, conducts an interview for her documentary.

Lewis-Thompson: The cemetery became inactive in the '90s, and like many Black cemeteries in the U.S. it was neglected. What does that say about how it was viewed?

Griffin-Pope: This is a thing that I am touching on in the film. The story of Greenwood is not just the story of Greenwood. It's the story of Black entities, Black people, Black places were just historically not seen as valuable. You can literally take the name Greenwood out of the title and put another cemetery name in front of it. Put another person's name in front of it, and that's the same story everywhere.

Lewis-Thompson: This historically Black cemetery is the resting place of many notable figures, including Harriet Scott and civil rights activist Charlton Tandy. What other stories did you learn in the process of making this film? Did anything surprise you?

Griffin-Pope: It's just like never-ending. It's like you're always going to find something new and something interesting and something historical at Greenwood Cemetery. There's one descendant that I've interviewed, and one side of her family was originally from Illinois. So they were in East St. Louis, and they were sadly there during the East St. Louis riots. The story goes that they were fleeing across the bridge and a white family or a white couple saw them, and they took them in and hid them until things kind of calmed down and helped them get across the bridge over to St. Louis. One of those people that was in the East St. Louis riot is buried at Greenwood Cemetery.

Lewis-Thompson: What is the legacy of the Greenwood Cemetery?

Griffin-Pope: It existed is an impact in itself, that there is a historically Black cemetery with mostly Black people buried there who all have stories. Those stories make up St. Louis. They make up St. Louis history. That would be the legacy of Greenwood Cemetery. It goes back to Black lives matter. Black lives matter when people are alive, and Black lives matter when people are not alive. So, even in death Black lives matter, and that's the legacy of Greenwood.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.