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How volunteers brought a historic Black St. Louis cemetery back from the brink

After decades of grassroots organization by volunteers, Father Dickson Cemetery in Crestwood, Missouri, has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.


The 12-acre, Black cemetery is a relic from the time burial grounds were segregated. Some 12,000 people are buried there, including Underground Railroad leaders, lynching victims, formerly enslaved people, military veterans and the man for whom the cemetery is named.

“Father Dixon was actually Moses Dixon, and he was born in 1824,” Cathy Hart, a cemetery board member, said on St. Louis on the Air. “He was an abolitionist, a pastor, a veteran and just an all-around great hero.”

Other notable markers at the site include the graves of John Vashon and his mother, Susan Vashon (Vashon High School was named after John and his father, George Vashon), as well as the United States’ first Black ambassador, James Milton Turner.

For Hart, the landmark designation is a victory decades in the making.

Thirty-five years ago, a developer came in wanting to develop the land for commercial use. Hart, whose great-grandparents are buried at Father Dickson, said that she and others had doubts that the graves could — or would — be moved with care.

“We know most of those would have just been plowed under,” she said. “And that, of course, infuriated the people who were descendants of the people who were buried there.”

At the time, in the mid-1980s, the cemetery was not being maintained, which led to other abuses of the land.

“Because it was neglected, people felt free to come in and dump trash, or to have beer parties, or satanic rituals or any number of things. It was overgrown, and it was easy to hide the dumping and the vandalism that was going on there,” Hart said. “So we got together and formed the organization to rescue the cemetery. … We all showed up with whatever implements we had — hoes, rakes, shovels, chainsaws, you name it.”

The organization, the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, has been active in maintaining the property ever since.

Hart said she hopes that the cemetery’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places will make the work easier moving forward.

“We are hoping that it will help us to gain visibility,” she said. “It will make it easier for people to recognize the importance of it, want to be involved with it and … contribute to its ongoing success.”

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 Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Emily Woodbury joined the St. Louis on the Air team in July 2019. Prior to that, she worked at Iowa Public Radio as a producer for two daily, statewide talk programs. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science. She got her start in news radio by working at her college radio station as a news director. Emily enjoys playing roller derby, working with dogs, and playing games – both video and tabletop.