Washington Park Cemetery: Then and Now

Photographing the history of disruption at an African-American burial ground in St. Louis.

Slideshow

Ever since moving to St. Louis, in the early ’90s, I’ve been photographing Washington Park Cemetery. Founded in 1920, Washington Park was once the largest African-American cemetery in the region. It was the burial site for many in the African-American community, including prominent locals such as Miles Davis, Sr., a prosperous dentist and father of the great jazz musician, and Oscar Minor Waring, principal of the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi. But now Washington Park is largely a ruin, its paths overgrown, the headstones neglected, the fields strewn with trash. In fact many of the bodies no longer lie beneath the ground.

The old cemetery is known for a recent history of painful neglect.

Today the old cemetery, which ceased operations in the late 1980s, is better known for a recent history of painful neglect — a history which underscores that structural racism in America damages black deaths as well as black lives. In the course of my project, I learned that Washington Park had the misfortune to be located on real estate that was deemed too valuable to remain dedicated to African-American burial, and that as a result it has been the scene of three profound disturbances. First, in the late 1950s, Interstate 70 was paved straight through the 75-acre landscape; in 1972, the expansion of Lambert International Airport claimed nine acres; and then again, in 1992, the airport acquired yet more land for a new runway and transit link to the city. Not only were many of the remains disinterred on these occasions but the efforts to notify families were often ineffective.1 Vandalism has been a chronic problem.

View of Washington Park Cemetery
This stone acknowledges those buried and moved twice before (1993).

At Washington Park Cemetery, one is poignantly reminded of the meanings of memorial landscapes, and what they signify about our broader cultures. As Keith Eggener writes, in an article in this journal, “Memorials are nothing if not directed at those who will look upon them and be called to remember.” On one of my early visits to Washington Park, I wandered through the quiet landscape of mature trees and tangled vegetation. On some of the old headstones I saw small, tender offerings — fresh flowers, handmade mementos — efforts to maintain connection and cultural heritage despite the deep disruptions. The peaceful groves that then survived, a quarter century ago, were still places for spiritual reflection and communion. My photographs are historical documentation; they are also a tribute and a protest.

Editors' Note

The photographs presented here are part of a multimedia exhibition, Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery, Its People and Place, which is showing this year at The Sheldon in St. Louis. The project aims not only to raise awareness of the cemetery but also to stimulate discussion about race and power in St. Louis and beyond.

Notes
  1. This sentence was edited after publication to more accurately convey the complicated history of notifying families of disinterment at Washington Park Cemetery. While families were rarely informed when the cemetery was disturbed in the 1950s, in the 1990s, some received notification via letters and newspaper articles.
Cite
Jennifer Colten, “Washington Park Cemetery: Then and Now,” Places Journal, June 2017. Accessed 21 Aug 2017. https://doi.org/10.22269/170601

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