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Washington Park Cemetery volunteers vow to correct historic Black gravesite’s neglect

Alma Norman lost track of her father's grave at Washington Park Cemetery for years. It’s tucked away on a hill overtaken by trees and shrubs. The former owner never followed through on placing Nathaniel Martin's headstone in 1981.
Emily Woodbury
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St. Louis Public Radio
"I know it couldn't be helped what happened," Normandy resident Alma Norman said. "But the thing of it is to get it undone."
Many of the gravestones at Washington Park Cemetery are toppled over or cracked — and countless others have sunk beneath the surface. One section of the cemetery is in a particularly dire state of disrepair. Standing water is constantly present due to a natural underground spring in the area.
Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
One section of Washington Park Cemetery is in a particularly dire state of disrepair. Standing water is constantly present due to a natural underground spring in the area.

In north St. Louis County, near the southeast tip of St. Louis Lambert International Airport and mere steps from I-70, is a century-old Black cemetery. At one point, Washington Park Cemetery was the largest African American cemetery in the St. Louis region.

More than 42,000 people are buried there, including George L. Vaughn, the attorney on the landmark civil rights case Shelley v. Kraemer; Ira Cooper, the first Black sergeant and lieutenant in the St. Louis police; the first principals of Sumner and Vashon high schools; Harris-Stowe State University professors and countless other community leaders.

After decades of desecration, flooding and overgrowth, volunteers are now working to bring Washington Park Cemetery back from the brink.

“Pretty much half of the cemetery now is overgrown into thick brush that makes the graves inaccessible to descendants,” said Aja Corrigan, founder of the Saving Washington Park initiative. She’s spent the past two years bringing awareness, organizing cleanups and trying to get local institutions involved at the cemetery.

Listen: Washington Park Cemetery’s quest to come back from the brink

“I don't think that descendants should have to come and clean up a cemetery,” she said. “They should just come and be able to enjoy the place and spend that time with their loved one.”

Corrigan also helps people find their ancestors’ graves, as many of the gravestones are toppled over or cracked from improper landscape maintenance. Countless markers have sunk beneath the surface.

Bennie Aaron Morrow Jr. died 40 years ago, around the time the cemetery fell into disrepair. As was the case for many interred at the time, his headstone was never placed. Because of this, his daughter, Florissant resident Dolores Lang, lost track of where he was buried.

Lang was able to locate her father’s final resting place after Spire employees used GPS equipment to track the locations of those buried at the cemetery. On March 17, Lang visited her father’s grave for the first time in 20 years.

“It just means so much just to know that we can come here and know where he is, and that he continues to rest in peace,” she said.

Corrigan believes technology like Spire’s offers big opportunities.

032522_EW_RobertGreen.jpg
Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aja Corrigan shows historian Robert Green a section of the cemetery where a well-meaning volunteer cut down trees. "But in doing that, they're laying them directly on top of graves nearby," she said.

“Geospatial is huge,” Corrigan said. “That's going to help us do the ground survey and reconnect those lineages and the data and the records and lead people to their ancestors.”

And, she said, it also offers educational opportunities for local youth. Corrigan wants to use the cemetery’s needs to create opportunities for young people to learn not just geospatial tech, but also trade skills such as specialized landscaping.

“If we teach the youth how to care for the cemetery going forward, not only will they use these transferable skills,” she said, “but they'll also be able to use those skills to transform their neighborhoods as well.”

Until the cemetery has stable ownership, however, improvement will continue to be difficult, Corrigan said.

The current owner, Kevin Bailey, purchased the land for $2 in 2006. Many people say Bailey had good intentions, but the task of restoring the cemetery was just too difficult. The cemetery is now in a trust with St. Louis County because taxes went unpaid.

Corrigan would like to see the City of St. Louis or St. Louis County assume management, partnering with Bailey or a descendant group.

“That way, they can apply for the grants that are coming down all over the country,” Corrigan said. “Until there's stable ownership, we can't even accept funds. There has to be a trust set up that's completely transparent and governed by a board.”

That type of ownership would allow for philanthropists to set up trusts and open up opportunities for grant funding — which would allow them to pay for a permanent landscape maintenance crew.

Even so, she wants to keep young people involved.

“If you have a tree service company and you think that you can come in and just do it all, that sounds amazing,” she said. “But if you teach five youth to do it, that's even more amazing.”

032522_EW_AlmaNorman2.jpg
Emily Woodbury
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Alma Norman couldn’t find her father's grave at Washington Park Cemetery for years. It’s tucked away on a hill overtaken by trees and shrubs. The former owner never followed through on placing a headstone for her father, Nathaniel Martin, in 1981.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Corrigan admitted just how much cemetery volunteers are up against, but she remains optimistic that with the help of educators, historians and community members, one day, Washington Park Cemetery will be a place where luminaries of St. Louis’ past can be honored and their stories studied by future generations.

“Those resting at Washington Park have done some amazing things to bring St. Louis forward, and we need to return that loyalty, so our corporations [and] our organizations need to be committed to this long term,” Corrigan said.

“It's not just a ‘come in on a Saturday and do a team thing’ — although that is helpful,” she added. “Spire has done some amazing things. In just two days, they were doing an incredible amount of work. But, going forward, that's not their business, so we need other organizations that are willing to put in that same kind of work.”

For more information on Washington Park Cemetery, including ways to volunteer and how to find specific burial plots, visit the Saving Washington Park Cemetery website.

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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. 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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