Editor's note: This replaces an earlier version that made an incorrect reference to a grave in the 20th paragraph beginning, "That's a prime location..."
BERKELEY — After decades of upheaval and neglect, a deteriorating historic black cemetery in Berkeley could come under public ownership once the city buys it for a mere $30.
The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously without discussion Monday night to buy 39 acres of Washington Park Cemetery at Interstate 70 and James S. McDonnell Boulevard for a selling price that covers just transaction fees for the property, which St. Louis County placed on liens after the current owner failed to pay hundreds of thousands in delinquent taxes.
More than half the roughly 42-acre site, which contains about 40,000 graves, has long been covered in overgrown grass and trees, with roads deteriorating, headstones fallen over and cracked, mass graves unmarked and human remains resurfacing from dilapidated graves.
A handful of dedicated volunteers have for several years spent thousands to maintain roughly 20 acres of the cemetery along Natural Bridge, but they have been unable to also fix up the remaining half.
Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins was confident Monday the city can restore the cemetery, once the largest and most prominent burial site in the region for African Americans.
“We’re going to take a historic black cemetery, turn it around and make it a place everyone can be proud of,” he said after the meeting.
Built in 1920 as a for-profit burial site, the cemetery was originally 75 acres. Construction of Interstate 70 in the late 1950s split the cemetery in two. Lambert airport bought nine acres in 1972. In the 1990s, the airport and MetroLink paid to remove the remains of about 12,000 people to other cemeteries.
Families complained workers rushed the process, damaging remains and mismanaging records. Many said they lost track of relatives’ graves.
Burials in the cemetery ended by 1991, when the cemetery’s third owner killed herself after the state, upon discovering misplaced headstones and resurfaced remains, sued her for neglect.
The current owner, Kevin Bailey, is the cemetery’s first black owner and the first owner with relatives buried there. He bought the cemetery in 2009 for $2 from the estate of a deceased Clayton lawyer who had also bought the property once the county placed it on liens for delinquent taxes.
Bailey had hopes of reclaiming the cemetery but struggled to organize a large enough effort to clear the overgrown half. The company he formed to own the cemetery, Amazing Grace Properties, owes about $411,000 in taxes for the land.
Bailey did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Dan Newman, who since 2012 has cut grass at the cemetery, trimmed trees and helped relatives find graves of their loved ones, is glad the city of Berkeley is going to buy the property. He and a handful of other volunteers together have spent a few thousand dollars each year repairing equipment and buying fuel, with occasional help from local houses of worship and nonprofit groups, he said.
After Berkeley voted to move to buy the cemetery, Newman approached the podium to offer the city $1,900 that Congregation Shaare Emeth in Creve Couer had donated to volunteers to buy gravel.
“They have more manpower and equipment,” said Newman, who is white and has relatives buried in Alton and Springfield, Illinois. “I think it’s going to be great for the cemetery. I think they saw how pretty the cemetery is when it’s cared for. It’s quite a sight to see.”
Newman said he thinks volunteers will still be at the cemetery to help Berkeley in its efforts. He hopes the city can also help lock up and guard the property at night to keep people from intruding or dumping trash there, he said.
“It’s a huge ongoing job,” he said. “There are a lot of things to do at the cemetery — you have to pick up tree limbs, keep the trees trimmed. There is always trash people throw out their car windows that needs to be picked up. There are always people that need help finding graves.”
Hoskins said before the City Council meeting that the city learned there were other potential buyers and feared that could lead to more remains being moved to make way for construction projects.
But Doug Moore, spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said that while another potential buyer had expressed interest in buying the cemetery, the county would only sell the cemetery to an entity that would preserve and restore it. Moore expected Berkeley to buy the cemetery after providing a written plan that demonstrates how it will preserve and restore the property, he said.
“That’s a prime location, that close to the airport,” said Moore. “If we don’t take a position, and a private company takes it over, it would be very difficult to prevent that.”
Reggie Jones, mayor of Dellwood, has a grandmother buried at the cemetery, he said after the Berkeley City Council meeting.
He did not know the city was considering buying the property, which is in Berkeley city limits, he said. But he supports the move.
“It’s great to hear,” he said. “I feel very confident that Berkeley is going to keep it in great shape.”
About three acres of the cemetery are owned by two companies that separately bought sections from two of the cemetery’s previous owners and installed a tower and three advertising billboards. Wanda Brandon, a volunteer at the cemetery attempting to find the graves of her mother and grandmother, has sued Drury Displays Inc. over the billboards.