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National Park Service adds three St. Louis sites to Underground Railroad network

A gravestone on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, at the Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale.
Brian Munoz/
St. Louis Public Radio
The Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale is one of three St. Louis-area locations that have been added to the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The National Park Service has added three St. Louis-area locations to its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom to commemorate the history of enslaved people who escaped to freedom.

The Tower Grove house at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the burial site of Archer Alexander at St. Peter's Cemetery in Normandy and Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale are now part of the program.

The program, founded in 1998, memorializes sites across the country tied to slavery and the Underground Railroad. The recently added sites join more than 750 locations across the U.S. and Canada.

“The Network to Freedom commemorates the courage, resilience and creativity of freedom seekers and provides insight to their struggles against oppression,” National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said in a statement. "Every listing added to the program moves us closer to telling a more complete and inclusive history of our nation and its quest to form a more perfect union.”

Greenwood volunteers have been working to nominate the cemetery for the past 10 months, Greenwood Cemetery Historian and Archivist Etta Daniels said.

“This designation introduces Greenwood to a more national audience,” Daniels said. “It's also possibly going to allow us to find funding for some of the things that we'd like to do in the future, signage and things like that.”

The predominantly Black cemetery established 1874 is the first Black nonsectarian cemetery in St. Louis and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the burial site of more than 50,000 enslaved people, Black teachers, Buffalo Soldiers and Native Americans. It includes the burial site of Harriet Robinson Scott, Dred Scott’s wife. The two sued for their freedom, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1857 that enslaved African Americans did not have constitutional rights. That ruling was overturned in 1871 after the adoption of the 14th Amendment.

Greenwood’s inclusion in the network is the latest accolade for the cemetery, which last year was honored by the Griot Museum of Black History for its Black Herstory installation.

“To watch where we started from, where we wanted to go, and to watch those types of dreams really just coming to fruition is an incredible experience,” Daniels said.

The three Missouri locations are among 23 additions to the park service’s network. The department accepts nominations twice a year.

It follows the discovery of more information about Archer Alexander, an enslaved man who in 1863 overheard Confederate sympathizers planning to destroy a bridge in St. Charles County used by Union soldiers. He alerted Union troops and later took the Underground Railroad to St. Louis, where he won his freedom.

Alexander died in 1880, but historians had believed he was buried in Clayton because of a book written by Washington University co-founder William Greenleaf Eliot, whom Alexander lived with. Research by St. Charles historian Dorris Keeven-Franke found Alexander is buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery.

Keeven-Franke, who has been following Alexander's story for years, said the designation will help shine more light on his story.

“This way, people that are interested in it and are looking at all these sites, they can know that there is indeed a really important story behind these sites,” she said.

Alexander is buried in an unmarked grave, but Keeven-Franke said a memorial will be completed at the cemetery.

“This memorial will stand across the road from there and share the story of Archer Alexander,” Keeven-Franke said. “Being on the network of freedom now, even more people will become aware of our true story.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.