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Keeping The Legacy Of St. Louis’ Historic Black Cemeteries Alive

Jennifer Colten

Established in 1920, Washington Park Cemetery in Berkeley served as a for-profit burial place for African Americans. Before it stopped operating in the 1980s, the graveyard was the largest African American cemetery in the region.

“It became the premier place for African Americans to be buried, and despite all the racism and prejudice, it thrived,” said art historian Chris Naffziger, author of the blog St. Louis Patina.

However, various city project expansions were not kind to the burial grounds. In the late 1950s, when Interstate 70 was built, the cemetery was bisected and developers paved over graves. In 1972, the airport purchased nine acres of the cemetery for an expansion.

Then, in the 1990s, a MetroLink extension to the airport was built into the cemetery, and there was also development due to what the FAA described as “aviation obstruction removals and land use compatibility” relating to Lambert airport’s longest runway.

Naffziger said it’s important to realize “the debacle” of what happened when MetroLink went through: “It was actually one of the largest mass removal of graves in American history. Anywhere from 11,000 to 13,000 graves were removed.”

The cemetery got its first black owner, Kevin Bailey, who bought it for $2 a little more than a decade ago. Even after that, Washington Park Cemetery struggled to mitigate plant growth and maintain grave sites.

Now, the grounds may soon come under public ownership. The City of Berkeley is in the process of purchasing Washington Park Cemetery from Bailey. 

St. Louis County’s director of revenue, Quentin Wilson, says that county and city officials, in conjunction with the families who have relatives buried there, hope to have a consensus on the cemetery’s sale by the end of February.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sarah Fenske talked with Naffziger about what happened to Washington Park Cemetery. She also spoke with advocates for two other historic black cemeteries in the region. Greenwood Cemetery’s historian and archivist, Etta Daniels, and Cathy Hart, a board member of the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, shared what they know about the rich histories contained within Greenwood and Father Dickson.

“Greenwood is almost a picture, a window into the early history of African Americans in the city of St. Louis,” said Daniels. “Between 1874 and 1993, Greenwood was an active burial ground, and over 50,000 African Americans were interred there.”

Hear the entire conversation in this episode of St. Louis on the Air:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.