Perpetual Neglect: The Preservation Crisis of African-American Cemeteries

In May 2017, Places Journal published a feature on the preservation crisis of African-American Cemetries that Charlottesville has confronted at sites like the Daughters of Zion Cemetery. See an excerpt below and read the full piece here

In late February, Raphael Morris pulled his car onto the gravel path just off St. Louis Avenue in northern St. Louis County, and saw something he’d hoped was a thing of the past: a large pile of garbage dumped in Greenwood Cemetery, near where he grew up and where several family members are buried. Morris is president of the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association and has been working to restore the African-American cemetery that dates back to the Reconstruction era. A day later, the worn mattresses and rusted exercise bike were just another trouble spot across Greenwood’s 32 acres. The dozen or so acres visible from the road are well maintained, even manicured; but further down the hilly sloping site, the landscape loses focus, growing ragged, almost feral, the headstones crumbling into the earth as nature reasserts itself. Here the cemetery is so overgrown that it’s largely inaccessible.

“My emotions are always like this … ,” Morris tells me, motioning with his hand up and down, a rollercoaster of hope at seeing this jewel of St. Louis history being slowly repaired, and despair at realizing how much remains to be done. In the rear section of the cemetery, we see wood planks, innumerable plastic bags and bottles, a TV, and a black wig partially ground into the dirt. We see a lot of tires, too, but Morris and Etta Daniels, the preservation association’s historian, have plans for these: they’ll incorporate them into the landscape as flower planters. Neither of them, both well into retirement age, have ever caught anyone dumping there. “I’m so glad,” says Daniels, who is lithe, self-assured, stern when there’s a point to be made. “I’d be in jail.”

Greenwood Cemetery is today a testament to hard work and sweat equity. Daniels, who has a master’s in history from University of Missouri, has devoted years to retrieving burial documents and piecing together a database. She has pulled death certificates from the St. Louis Public Library and the Missouri Secretary of State’s office. She’s reached out to local funeral homes, and asked community members to bring her newspaper obituaries to fill in the gaps. Her current records list the names of 36,000 buried at Greenwood (out of an estimated 50,000) and she’s spent many hours on the site, matching physical headstones to archival data. 1 Every branch carted off the cemetery, every burial marker documented, reflects the dedication of the non-profit association and the volunteer energy of area organizations. St. Louis University and Washington University have fielded teams to pull weeds, mow grass, and clear brush; corporations including Monsanto and the state power company Ameren have pitched in too. One estimate for basic restoration of the entire cemetery was $500,000, but that was ten years ago. Now Morris thinks the cost would be several million.

Ultimately the struggle to restore Greenwood is about more than the fate of a cemetery that saw its last burial more than two decades ago. Founded in 1874, Greenwood was the first commercial, non-sectarian African-American cemetery in St. Louis. It was established by a German emigrant, Herman Krueger, who anticipated that recently emancipated African Americans and their families were, in effect, a new and growing market for dignified and decent burial. Krueger proved to be a shrewd businessman, and for almost a century Greenwood prospered. One of its earliest and most illustrious burials was the former slave Harriet Robinson Scott, who along with her husband, Dred Scott, petitioned the U.S. courts for freedom (the infamous Supreme Court decision that denied their appeal is widely reviled as among the worst in its history). Charlton Hunt Tandy, a Civil War veteran and lawyer who became a leading advocate for desegregation in the Jim Crow era, is also buried at Greenwood (the 1896 decision that established the “separate but equal” doctrine is another black mark on the high court’s record). Greenwood’s most famous presence is Lee Shelton, a pimp, hustler, and local icon who sported an ebony cane, gold rings, Stetson hat, and .44 Smith and Wesson, and who’s been immortalized in the much-covered ballad “Stagger Lee.” Later burials include the blues singer and pianist Walter Davis and jazz guitarist Grant Green.

Greenwood was operated by members of the Krueger family for more than a century. By the time they sold the cemetery to a local entrepreneur, in 1979, business was slowing, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, as burials became fewer and income dried up, the site began to decline. According to Etta Daniels, there was little to no maintenance in those years; hand-etched, moss-covered gravestones that date to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson were in rough shape, but so were the machine-chiseled headstones from the Reagan era. The new owner had banked on winning a contract to re-inter the bodies from another struggling African-American cemetery: in the mid ’90s Washington Park Cemetery was partially dug up to make way for a new light rail to Lambert International Airport. That deal fell through, the owner of Greenwood went bankrupt, and in 2000 St. Louis County took over the derelict site. A couple of years later the newly formed non-profit preservation association took control, and began the unending battle against weeds and debris, decay and neglect.

Morris and Daniels see Greenwood as a microcosm of African-American life in St. Louis, from Reconstruction to today. “This is a powerful place in terms of what it can offer the community,” says Daniels. She describes their tenacious efforts as the “remedying of an injustice,” and in this light the fight to save Greenwood is best understood as part of the larger social and economic struggles that have long shaped black life in St. Louis and beyond. The cemetery is located in Hillsdale, a struggling suburb just outside the city limits that in recent decades has gotten poorer and more segregated as white residents moved away. Today the population is more than 90 percent African American; the median income is just $23,000, half that of the St. Louis region; and the average home value only $51,000. It’s a neighborhood of brick bungalows and shuttered stores, with a scattering of foreclosures. It’s just a few miles from Ferguson, where in the summer of 2014 the shooting of Michael Brown by local police sparked the first Black Lives Matter protests. (Brown is buried in nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery.)