Washington Park Cemetery
Denise Ward-Brown

Headstones of Friends Rebecca Edward & William Maul at Washington Park Cemetery. This is a video still from Home Going, Denise Ward-Brown, 2016. Large clean-up jobs, like this fallen tree, go left undone as volunteers continue to clear and maintain the grounds of Washington Park Cemetery. Photo credit: Denise Ward-Brown (2016).

Washington Park Cemetery (WPC) located just northwest of St. Louis City in the suburb of Berkley, was established in 1920 as a burial ground for African Americans at a time when rigid segregation was a common custom and practice. For nearly 70 years, it was the largest black cemetery in the region. It was established as a for-profit cemetery by two Caucasian men as one of the first ‘Burial Parks’ or ‘Garden Cemeteries’ under the false advertisement of being owned and operated by ‘colored people’ and with an erroneous promise of a perpetual care endowment. 

WPC has both a celebrated and a disturbing past. Celebrated because WPC has many prominent African American families buried at the site. Yet, on three notable occasions the peace of these grounds was disturbed: first in the late 1950’s with the construction of Interstate 70, in 1972 when Lambert Airport acquired nine acres for its use, and again in 1992 when tenthousand bodies were disinterred to make way for the airport runway expansion and Metro Link’s extension to the airport.

The story is further complicated by the neglect WPC has experienced over the last three decades. As a non-perpetual care burial ground, owners have struggled to maintain its dignity and its former pristine beauty. In 1990, the third owner of the cemetery, Virginia Younger, was investigated for mismanagement and malfeasance including allegation of “overturned graves, missing bodies and stolen caskets.” Since then, WPC has changed hands several times. The current owner, Kevin Bailey, whose father is buried there, bought WPC in 2009 with the goal of restoring the grounds in recognition of its historic significance.

As a filmmaker, I collected video history accounts from people who have a personal relationship with or have contextual information about WPC. As an artist, I created Home Going which is an integral part of an exhibition entitled Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery, Its People and Place currently on view (until August 2017) at the Sheldon Art Galleries. The other two artists in the exhibit are Jen Colten, landscape photographer, and Dail Chambers, sculptor.

Home Going is a set of three video documentaries. The first video intertwines the images of a concert I orchestrated at the Asbury United Methodist Church: the singers and their audience, with video images of WPC. The performers offer eight selections of traditional funerary music authored as tradition Negro spirituals, classic or contemporary gospel music. These songs offer both mournful reverie and joyous celebration of life. In honoring the sacredness of WPC, it was necessary to acknowledge the African American church, it origins, history and continued presence. This video signifies the strength, vitality and ancestral links of Black church music. The audio of this video provides a melodic backdrop that permeates throughout the exhibition of photos and the sculptural installation.

The other two documentaries, situated in small alcoves, provide seating and headphones. This setting offers an intimate experience with thirteen video histories of various constituents connected with WPC: the owner, volunteers, visitors, library archivists, historians and family descendants. Their voices frame the complicated history of WPC as a metaphor: a collection of individual monuments and of a monument to the St. Louis African American community’s struggle for self-determination. Interviewees, both Caucasian and African American, honor WPC as the final resting place of our collective ancestors and collective histories. These videos and the exhibition honor the noble struggle and fight for dignity and recognize the unfinished mission of a perpetual care cemetery. The ‘unfinished work’ here is the on-going work to clean up WPC and metaphorically, to finish the ethical fight for equal citizenship.

Home Going: A Musical Celebration, a Denise Ward-Brown film

Basketball Court, St. Louis Place Park
John Early

Markings on one of the four poles at the basketball court in St. Louis Place Park. October 31, 2016. Photo by John Early.

Christ the King UCC, Florissant
Laurie Maffly-Kipp

Christ the King UCC. Photo by Maffley-Kipp.

Confederate Memorial
David Cunningham
Nicole Fox
Christina Simko

The Confederate Memorial in Forest Park, defaced
as an act of protest following the Charleston church shootings in
June 2015. Image from https://www.rt.com/usa/269527-confederate-black-lives-matter/

Confederate Memorial in Forest Park
Matthew Fox-Amato

Forest Park Confederate Memorial, 2016. Photo by Matthew Fox-Amato.

Cook Avenue
Joshua Aiken

4004 and 4008 Cook Avenue,

December 24th, 2016, Photo by Joshua Aiken.

Delmar Boulevard
Eric Sandweiss

5500 block of Delmar, c. 1930; Swekosky Notre Dame College Collection, Missouri Historical Society: http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/143130.html

Eads Bridge
Jonathan Karp

Black East St. Louisans attempt to cross the Eads Bridge during the 1987 Veiled Prophet Fair. 

“4 Jul 1987, Page 5 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://www.newspapers.com/image/142332505/?terms=eads.

Fairground Park Pool, O'Fallon
Michael Allen

African-American and Caucasian Children at Fairground Swimming Pool, June 21, 1949 Source: Missouri Digital Heritage (http://cdm16795.contentdm.oclc...)

Jasmine Mahmoud

Panel at Critical Conversations: Art and the Black Body at Contemporary Art Museum, September 2016. Photo by Jasmine Mahmoud.

LaClede Town
Benjamin Looker

Two boys at the LaClede Town housing complex, in a Post-Dispatch photo taken in 1968.

Image found at  https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/141859001/

McRee town
Patty Heyda

3968-70 McRee Ave, McRee Town/ St. Louis. Photo credit Jim Roos (2001).

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Redevelopment District, Northside
Heidi Kolk

“St. Louis Wins!,” public mailer sent by the Washington D.C. Office of Congressman William Lacy Clay to St. Louisans in June of 2016. 

The copy reads: “Selected For New Western NGA Headquarters | Largest Federal Investment in the History of The City of St. Louis | North St. Louis selected as preferred site for the new $1.7 billion western headquarters of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency!”

On the reverse side of the mailer, which also includes conceptual drawings of the NGA site and a photograph of city officials at a press conference in which the big news was announced, Clay explains the decision to located the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s new western office as an “unprecedented, transformational opportunity to focus $1.7 billion, the largest federal investment in the history of the City of St. Louis, within the core of [the city’s] new designed HUD Promise Zone to advance my long-standing congressional priroities of bringing jobs, new federal resources and technological innovation to distressed urban neighborhoods in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.”

Powell Hall
Patrick Burke

Grand Foyer of St. Louis Theater (now Powell Hall), 1925. Courtesy of Missouri Historical Society http://collections.mohistory.org/resource/145282.html

The “Love Bank” Basketball Court and Gentrification on Cherokee Street
Douglas Flowe

Love Bank Basketball Court on Cherokee Street. Photo by Douglas Flowe.

Washington Park Cemetery
Denise Ward-Brown

Headstones of Friends Rebecca Edward & William Maul at Washington Park Cemetery. This is a video still from Home Going, Denise Ward-Brown, 2016. Large clean-up jobs, like this fallen tree, go left undone as volunteers continue to clear and maintain the grounds of Washington Park Cemetery. Photo credit: Denise Ward-Brown (2016).

Wellston Loop Pavillion (1909)
Iver Bernstein

Wellston Loop Pavillion (1909). Photo 2006 by Gary R. Tetley, “Eleven Most Endangered Places, 2007,” Landmarks Association of St. Louis: http://www.landmarks-stl.org/enhanced_and_endangered/eleven_most_endangered_places_2007, accessed on February 26, 2017.  Note that there is no commercial use of this structure at the present time (2.26.17).