Malissa Blanchard doesn’t know if any of her ancestors were buried in the former Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery in Washington Park, IL but she can’t rule it out.
She’s black, she grew up in nearby Lovejoy and the cemetery served black families from throughout the region until the 1940s.
Blanchard, 69, of Washington Park, has had an uneasy feeling since last month, when state officials discovered apparent human remains at the site while doing preliminary work for a highway project. The cemetery was supposed to be moved in the 1960s to make way for construction of Interstate 64.
At the very least, Blanchard would like to see some kind of historic monument erected.
“I just want some recognition for it,” she said. “I want the public to know that the cemetery existed. I want the people who are buried there to be remembered and not forgotten.”
Blanchard, a former grocery-store clerk, is founding president of the non-profit Community Awakening Civic Organization, which serves an annual meal for police and firefighters. She first learned about the cemetery 15 years ago while researching local history, but she couldn’t drum up much interest with other residents.
“To me, it’s a sacred place,” she said.
Archeological study continues
The Illinois Department of Transportation is planning a $28.5 million replacement of the Kingshighway (Illinois 111) bridge over Interstate 64 and its ramps in the next few years. Officials asked for public input last summer and learned about the cemetery. Archaeologists did some digging and found bones that appeared to be human.
The discovery set in motion a legal process required by the Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, according to Brad Koldehoff, manager of the cultural resource unit in IDOT’s environmental section. It could eventually lead to overpass-project design changes or relocation of some remains.
The Illinois State Archaeological Survey will complete its investigation before the project is turned over to IDOT’s district office for design work, said IDOT spokesman Joe Schatteman.
“In regard to a monument or any other issues along those lines, that would be discussion point at a later time,” he added.
Washington Park Mayor Rickie Thomas didn’t return multiple calls for comment.
Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery (also known as Lawn Ridge) was a “popular burial ground of the East St. Louis Negro community,” according to a 1968 story in the Belleville News-Democrat. It adjoined a St. Clair County pauper’s cemetery for all races for a total of 25 acres. It was largely abandoned after World War II, and many of the tombstones disappeared.
The state of Illinois hired Keeley Bros. Construction Co. in East St. Louis to move an estimated 3,000 graves to nearby Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Sunset Memorial Gardens, the BND reported. That company, which is no longer in business, submitted the low bid of $1,495,616.
Not everyone was surprised
The discovery of bones at the Kingshighway-Interstate 64 interchange didn’t surprise Scott Rose, 56, the Washington Park man who told IDOT about the cemetery last summer. He had learned about it several years ago when doing research on property near Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, where he works in security.
It’s not uncommon for human remains to be found at former cemetery sites where graves were supposed to be moved, Koldehoff said last month.
The 1968 story about the Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery relocation mentioned the difficulty Keeley faced in finding unmarked graves.
“’Lost’ graves are found by excavating a series of parallel trenches four feet apart with a small backhoe,” the BND reported. “This machine affords the operator a measure of ‘feel’ in his digging. The backhoe is closely followed by a crew of laborers with spades and shovels for close scrutiny.
“After 40 years interment, there isn’t much left aside from a thin gray coffin outline and occasionally a rusty nail, tooth or bone fragment. A few scoops of this material are deposited in a man-size wooden box painted gray, sealed and transported for reburial.”
Wanda Brandon, 59, of St. Louis, has a more cynical view of what happened. Black cemeteries have always been treated with less respect than white cemeteries, she said.
Brandon is a vocal advocate for Washington Park Cemetery, a run-down black cemetery in St. Louis, where her mother and other relatives are buried. Interstate 70 goes through a section that officials in the 1950s claimed weren’t used for burials, and thousands of graves were moved in the 1990s to make way for MetroLink. Today, giant billboard towers stand next to tombstones.
Brandon formed the Washington Park Cemetery Anti-Desecration League last year and recently filed a lawsuit against the billboard company, seeking to force removal of its towers.
“I’ve had several people tell me that they think they have relatives who are buried under Interstate 70,” she said. “At least once a month, a different story pops up from somewhere in the United States about a black cemetery that has been erased or desecrated in some way.”
Memories shared on Facebook
Last month’s news about Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery prompted former Washington Park residents to share memories of its 1960s relocation on a Facebook page called “You grew up in Washington Park if you ...” Several recalled seeing a fleet of hearses going up and down Kingshighway on a regular basis.
“I remember it vividly,” said Chief Judge Andrew J. Gleeson of the 20th Judicial Circuit Court in Belleville. “I was just fascinated by the old hearses. I was asking my parents what was going on. I’m not sure I knew there was a cemetery there until they started digging up bodies. It was all grown up.”
Gleeson, 59, was in grade school at the time, so the experience was somewhat “traumatic,” he said.
“I don’t remember there being much of a protest about it. There was a little bit of a feeling of, ‘Let those people rest in peace,’ but it wasn’t a real concerted or strong movement of any kind. They knew there was an interstate coming through, and they felt like the authorities were doing their best to identify the graves and doing it in a dignified way.”
Dennis Reynolds was a student at the former Assumption Catholic High School, just south of the cemetery, in the late 1960s. He regularly saw hearses driving by with plain wooden boxes in back.
“I remember some of my teachers saying that those were the graves for people who couldn’t afford a funeral home or proper burial,” said Reynolds, 67, who grew up in East St. Louis and now lives in Carlyle.
Teachers were apparently talking about the St. Clair County pauper’s cemetery, which local residents called “Potter’s Field.”
Hearses parked in salvage yard
Tom Petroff, 90, of Fairview Heights, has some of the clearest memories of the cemetery relocation. He also had to leave his home and move his business, Petroff Bros. Towing and Garage, now operated by his sons in Caseyville. Interstate 64 goes through what used to be their family’s yard.
In 1968, Keeley hired Petroff to haul in a trailer equipped with showers for workers handling the human remains.
“That was something IDOT required,” Petroff said. “The employees had to decontaminate before they left the grounds on the off-chance that they came in contact with some type of disease.”
Petroff later owned and operated the Shell gas station at Kingshighway and Bunkum Road in Washington Park that has since been torn down.
Petroff remembers Keeley using pick-up trucks to carry the human remains in the beginning, but that was determined to be too undignified, so Keeley bought 11 hearses and “combinations,” which were hearse-ambulances used by funeral homes that provided both services in those days.
“I did towing for Keeley, and when he was done with the hearses, he asked me if I wanted to buy them, so I did,” Petroff said. “I put them in our salvage yard. They were pretty nice hearses, but I didn’t think anyone would buy them. Who would want them?”
The hearses and combinations still are parked in a heavily-overgrown back section of the salvage yard.
“At least six of them are Cadillacs,” Petroff said.
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org