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How volunteers brought a historic Black St. Louis cemetery back from the brink

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Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The 12-acre cemetery, located near the Sappington House Museum and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, was saved from complete abandonment by the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, under the leadership of Ernest Jordan since 1988.

After decades of grassroots organization by volunteers, Father Dickson Cemetery in Crestwood, Missouri, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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Emily Woodbury
In 1988, the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery was founded to restore and preserve the burial ground.

The 12-acre, Black cemetery is a relic from the time burial grounds were segregated. Some 12,000 people are buried there, including Underground Railroad leaders, lynching victims, formerly enslaved people, military veterans and the man for whom the cemetery is named.

“Father Dixon was actually Moses Dixon, and he was born in 1824,” Cathy Hart, a cemetery board member, said on St. Louis on the Air. “He was an abolitionist, a pastor, a veteran and just an all-around great hero.”

Other notable markers at the site include the graves of John Vashon and his mother, Susan Vashon (Vashon High School was named after John and his father, George Vashon), as well as the United States’ first Black ambassador, James Milton Turner.

For Hart, the landmark designation is a victory decades in the making.

Thirty-five years ago, a developer came in wanting to develop the land for commercial use. Hart, whose great-grandparents are buried at Father Dickson, said that she and others had doubts that the graves could — or would — be moved with care.

“We know most of those would have just been plowed under,” she said. “And that, of course, infuriated the people who were descendants of the people who were buried there.”

At the time, in the mid-1980s, the cemetery was not being maintained, which led to other abuses of the land.

“Because it was neglected, people felt free to come in and dump trash, or to have beer parties, or satanic rituals or any number of things. It was overgrown, and it was easy to hide the dumping and the vandalism that was going on there,” Hart said. “So we got together and formed the organization to rescue the cemetery. … We all showed up with whatever implements we had — hoes, rakes, shovels, chainsaws, you name it.”

Cathy Hart joins St. Louis on the Air

The organization, the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, has been active in maintaining the property ever since.

Hart said she hopes that the cemetery’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places will make the work easier moving forward.

“We are hoping that it will help us to gain visibility,” she said. “It will make it easier for people to recognize the importance of it, want to be involved with it and … contribute to its ongoing success.”

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. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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

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