The neglected history of Washington Park Cemetery reveals a pattern of practices that are representative of larger, systemic issues of race, politics, and power that we still grapple with in our region and the country at large.
In the early 1990’s soon after moving to St Louis, I began documenting Washington Park Cemetery in Berkley, Missouri. The cemetery’s long and tragic history reveals a complicated tangle of social injustice, racial politics, imbalance of power, and painful neglect. The history of this prominent African-American cemetery established in 1920, reveals within its microcosm of events, issues representative of larger and systemic conditions facing our region and the country at large.
When I began my artistic research I knew very little of the history of this place. What I found just beneath the surface, was a story too profound to ignore. What I saw as I wandered the site: the beautiful decade’s old trees, the once careful landscaping, the quiet environment, all sat parallel to the upheaval caused by controversial politics. I also saw evidence of small yet tender offerings placed at grave sites. I saw efforts to maintain connection in spite of the disruptions imposed upon the most personal and private tributes to loved ones and to a community’s cultural heritage. I began following this story – documenting, making work that was guided by the need to honor the families who had little or inadequate representation.
This land, the cemetery land, was not only beautiful, the real estate also happened to be very valuable. On three notable occasions, the peace of the grounds was disturbed: first in the 1950’s with the construction of Interstate 70, then in 1972 when Lambert Airport acquired nine acres for its use, and again in 1992 when bodies were disinterred to make way for the Airport runway expansion and MetroLink’s extension to the airport.I aim for the work to celebrate the cultural and historical significance of Washington Park Cemetery, and to honor the people affected by decades of oversight, neglect, and disruption. Art has the power to facilitate healing and to initiate dialogue, while simultaneously and directly acknowledging historical, political and racial injustice. My photographs are in part protest, in part tribute, and in part historical documentation.
Exhibit view at The Sheldon Art Galleries, St Louis, MO
prepared by Jesse Vogler
essay by Azzurra Cox
essay by Michael Allen