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Headstones knocked over, havoc wreaked at historic Black cemetery in St. Louis County

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HILLSDALE — Preservationists of the historic Greenwood Cemetery here are assessing widespread damage after vandals toppled gravestones, lit fires and smashed benches.

At least 36 headstones were toppled over the past week at Greenwood, the first commercial cemetery for Black people in the St. Louis area, said Raphael Morris, who with his wife is leading an effort to clean and preserve the formerly neglected cemetery. They have not yet had a chance to canvass the nearly 32-acre lot, so more damage may have been done.

Some of the stones weigh as much as 700 or 800 pounds, Morris said.

Along with the knocked-over headstones, two wooden benches were smashed and a stone bench was toppled, resulting in a large crack. A wooden pergola was also damaged by fire, and at least four other fires were set in different locations around the cemetery.

The cemetery was founded in 1876, and had its last burial in 1993. More than 50,000 people are buried there, Morris said.

The cemetery was also a victim of the flooding that hit the area in July. Some of its road was washed out, with ruts as deep as two feet, he said. Local contractors have volunteered to fix the road.

Morris said the cemetery was completely grown over with brush 15 to 20 feet tall when he and his wife, Shelley, began to restore it in the summer of 2015. Some of the stones, though standing upright, were completely covered in dirt. Finding and uncovering them was almost like an archaeological project.

Nearly half of the land is still overgrown. Teams of volunteers do much of the clearance and restoration work, including a group from AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps — a government organization for people 18-26 to do national and community service — and a group of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who work at the site twice a week.

Greenwood Cemetery is the final resting place for many former slaves and local residents of note. Among those buried there are Harriet Robinson Scott who, with her husband, was part of the infamous Dred Scott Case, and Lucy A. Delaney, who wrote the only published first-person account of a slave’s suit to become free.

Both Raphael and Shelley Morris have relatives buried in the cemetery. In 2019, Raphael Morris found the headstone for his great-grandmother, Minnie Mitchell.

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