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BERKELEY • Wanda Brandon can hack away at the overgrowth hiding her mother’s grave and covering much of the nearly century-old Washington Park Cemetery, once the largest and most prominent burial site in the region for African-Americans and now a partially dilapidated mess volunteers are trying to rehabilitate.

It’s the three commercial billboards in the back that give her more trouble. They tower above dozens of graves, advertising Coca-Cola and window-washing services to motorists on a stretch of Interstate 70, the construction of which in the 1950s split the cemetery in two.

The billboards have been there for more than three decades. Drury Displays Inc., the company that owns them, says , respectfully, that they’re there to stay; but Brandon, 57, is on a campaign to have them removed.

At least one company has pulled its ad from the billboards since Brandon made her concerns public. But a number of the handful of regular volunteers who’ve spent years and thousands out of pocket to reclaim about 25 acres of the cemetery don’t support Brandon’s campaign.

Neither does the cemetery’s beleaguered owner — its first black owner and its first with relatives buried there — who bought it in 2009 for $2. The billboards are among the least of his worries. He and the volunteers say the company, DDI Media, takes care of its land and recently reached out to see if there were other ways to help.

But to Brandon, the billboards are not only disrespectful to her family, they’re a reminder of how the cemetery lost land and fell into neglect.

“As I saw these billboards, all of this history was playing through my mind,” Brandon said. “I thought, how can you disrespect the dead? It was mind-blowing to think that someone would put billboards inside of a cemetery almost on top of people’s graves. This is racism.

“All they worried about was making a profit off of that land, and they did at the expense of African-Americans, the deceased, and the community. This wouldn’t have been done in a white cemetery.”

Restless history

Originally 75 acres, Washington Park Cemetery was founded as a for-profit burial place in 1920 by Andrew Henry Watson, a lawyer and court reporter, and Joseph John Hauer, a real estate investor. The cemetery’s perpetual-care agreement was dissolved at some point; records are unclear.

Harlin Brown and Manuel Lansky bought the cemetery in 1955. I-70 was built through the cemetery shorty after.

The section of the cemetery north of I-70 no longer exists: The airport then known as Lambert Field bought nine acres for expansion in 1972.

Burials in the southern portion stopped by 1991, when the cemetery’s third owner, Virginia Younger, killed herself after the state sued her for neglect. Exhumations had failed to turn up remains where they were supposed to be; families complained of misplaced headstones and bones on the ground. Younger left behind a cemetery lacking markers for many graves or detailed maps identifying who was buried where.

In the 1990s, the airport and the builders of MetroLink bought other sections and paid to move remains. Lambert needed to lower a hill that obstructed air traffic, and MetroLink’s tracks cut through the cemetery to reach the airport.

In all, the remains of about 12,000 people were dug up and moved to 23 other area cemeteries. Families complained workers rushed the process, damaging remains and mismanaging records. Many said they lost track of relatives’ graves.

The controversial reburials accounted for what is possibly the largest mass disinterment of an established cemetery in U.S. history, said Robert Fells, general counsel at the International Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association.

Post-Dispatch articles from the time captured the events: During the reburials, workers discovered a mass grave of about 300 bodies dumped there in 1952 by officials disinterring remains from Weslyan Cemetery; a state regulator made light of the work of digging up the bodies by climbing into a casket for a mock funeral and arranging some remains in a skull-and-crossbones configuration; an archaeologist overseeing the disinterment in 1993 stole remains for “research” and only returned them when he received a $90,000 payment he said he was owed for work.

Only about 300 families of those disinterred responded to officials’ notices offering to pay to have their loved ones reburied elsewhere. Despite strict guidelines and court-mandated oversight, families complained that remains were damaged in a rushed process and that they couldn’t trace their relatives’ remains after they’d been moved to one of more than a dozen other cemeteries in the area.

Brandon’s sister, Lonzetta Smith Brandon, was murdered at age 19 in 1964 and buried at Washington Park. Her grave was one of those disinterred and moved to another cemetery.

Brandon’s mother died in 1966 when Brandon was 5 years old and was buried at Washington Park. Her grandmother had been buried there in 1944. But Brandon doesn’t know exactly where her mother or grandmother were laid to rest.

Brandon said her family had never made a habit of visiting the cemetery when she was young. When she visited the cemetery in 2014, it was so overgrown she couldn’t get to the middle section where she thinks her mother is buried.

“What you see now is a miracle compared to what it was a few years ago,” she said.

She didn’t find out about the billboards until 2016, when she started volunteering at the cemetery.

“I would have never have went into that part of the cemetery otherwise,” she said.

She thinks many cemetery visitors, a number of whom have maintained their relatives’ headstones themselves over the years, don’t know about the billboards because of the cemetery’s condition.

“From the highway you can’t even tell there’s a cemetery here,” she said, pointing out the trees, cattails and honeysuckle obscuring headstones.

“Anybody passing by, one would assume that (the billboards) are just on the outskirts of the highway and not inside actually inside (the cemetery). The only way you would know they’re back there is if you visit relatives buried back there.”

Before she took her anti-billboard crusade to the media, Brandon contacted DDI Media directly, she said.

“I said, ‘I don’t care that it was bought several years ago, you’ve made enough money off the dead. It’s time to go,’” Brandon said.

“There is never a time when you can’t speak up for what you believe in. These are my ancestors out here. These are the ancestors of the black community of all of St. Louis. The dead can’t fight for themselves, but I can be their voice.”

‘Damaged graves’

The billboards have been in the cemetery since 1986, with the then-owners’ full agreement: The strip of land they sit on was originally leased and then sold that year to Drury Displays Inc. Then-president Timothy M. Drury, a scion of the Drury Inn and Hotels company, signed the deed. The cemetery owner whose name is on the original deed, Harlin Brown, has since died.

One Thursday in late May, Brandon pointed to a handful of headstones underneath the billboard at the corner of I-70 and James S. McDonnell Boulevard. They were blotted with burgundy paint that appeared to be the same coating on the metal high above.

Nearby, chipped and broken headstones were lying face up in the mud, knocked over weeks earlier by a contractor the billboard company sent to clear overgrowth. The contractor had used machinery to sweep across 40 feet.

DDI Media did not make a representative available to discuss the original land sale but said in a statement that the billboards were put in place with cemetery owners’ agreement and that the company invested thousands of dollars each year to maintain its portion of the land. The statement did not mention the incident in which headstones were damaged.

In response to a reporter’s questions, DDI said in a second statement that the headstones were damaged when DDI recently extended the amount of property it maintains several feet beyond the billboards and contracted with a company to clear overgrowth.

The contractor “operated in a matter that was not authorized or condoned” by DDI Media, damaging headstones in the process. The company immediately notified Bailey and said it will replace the damaged headstones as well as other nearby headstones in disrepair.

”We have always worked to be a good partner, citizen and neighbor — working in a respectful manner. We are deeply disappointed by the actions of this contractor and are sincerely sorry for the damage they caused,” the statement said. “We are doing everything possible to fully address the damage. We have and always will strongly support efforts to maintain the cemetery and honor the memories of those who are buried there.”

A DDI Media representative also said the company had never been notified of any headstones’ being hit with paint used on their billboards.

‘A violation’

Fells said that while some cemeteries discreetly install cellphone towers in corner plots behind trees and out of sight of visiting mourners, he’s never heard of a cemetery renting out or selling burial grounds for commercial billboards.

“To have signage advertising beer or other commercial products is really strange,” Fells said.

“As a legal matter, when land is dedicated for burial use, it’s not easy to just undedicate it. There’s no five-year warranty for grave maintenance and care — the responsibility is ongoing. It does sound like this cemetery has gone beyond what’s normal.”

Jennifer Colten, a photography professor at Washington University, photographed Washington Park Cemetery over a span of more than 20 years. With a grant from the university aimed at studying issues of racial injustice, she exhibited her work last year at the Sheldon Gallery.

The first photo in the exhibit was one Colten took of the billboard at the corner of James S. McDonnell and I-70.

“When you see that, of course you wonder who owns that billboard and who’s profiting off that advertising and what’s the relationship of the billboard to the cemetery,” said Colten, who does not know Brandon and had not heard of her campaign.

“The billboards are a violation. They’re a violation on the land. They’re not a part of the landscape, and they’re not there because the community is receiving any benefit from them.”

Colten began her project after Younger’s death but photographed the cemetery during the disinterments. She said the billboards were just “part of the story.”

“The larger story is the African-American community — even in their place of death, they were not regarded with respect and honor,” she said. “I firmly believe if it was a white cemetery they would have found another route for the airport expansion, the MetroLink and even possibly the highway.”

‘They own the land’

Because DDI bought the parcel in 1986, the billboards technically aren’t in the cemetery, though they’re feet from headstones.

That means the cemetery gets no money from the advertisements. But the company has regularly cut the grass in its section, volunteers say.

“Personally I don’t want to fuss with the billboard owners. To now point fingers at them and say they’re the bad guys for buying land legally is besides the point,” said a four-year volunteer mowing the grass Thursday, May 31, who refused to be identified by name. “They mow a long stretch of grass on their land. That’s grass we don’t have to mow ourselves.”

It was another volunteer, Dan Newman, who showed Brandon the billboards. He has helped out at the cemetery since 2011.

“I’m not used to seeing overgrown cemeteries,” said Newman, who is white and has relatives buried in Alton and Springfield, Ill. “Where I grew up, cemeteries were always mowed.”

His relationship with Brandon strained when he told DDI Media about her campaign.

“I thought we should at least try to get to know them first,” Newman said.

He said DDI had also asked the Missouri Department of Transportation to help drain water runoff from springs under a section of the cemetery next to their land. He’s helping the company research which headstones need to be replaced.

But Newman, who often leads families to loved ones buried near the billboards, agrees with Brandon: The billboards should go.

“I was out there about a week ago with a guy, and he was just appalled by the signs,” Newman said. “Those signs are gaudy. They’re towering. I don’t like them either. And (DDI Media) knows that. But I don’t know how you get the billboards out unless they just decide they don’t want to be there.”

‘Rectify this wrong’

Bailey, the cemetery’s owner, said he appreciated that Brandon wanted to help the cemetery but said her campaign was “not a fight he’s willing to fight.”

The two have never spoken.

“I don’t fault DDI Media, it’s their land,” Bailey said. “They don’t give us anything as far as financial assistance, but they do keep up their portion, and they have also asked what else they can do to keep the cemetery clean.”

Bailey’s father, Kevin Garrett Bailey, is buried in Washington Park Cemetery. He was fatally shot Aug. 20, 1978, in St. Louis in a murder that remains unsolved. Bailey was 2 at the time.

When he returned to St. Louis in 2006 after years out of state, Bailey “felt drawn” to the cemetery and found “the conditions were deplorable.”

He wanted to help, and met with then-owner Ronald Kuper, who published the Watchman Advocate, a St. Louis-area weekly that carried legal notices.

Kuper and his partner, Clayton lawyer Charles Clardy, bought the cemetery for $3,500 in 1990 when it was put on the block for unpaid taxes and just as officials were announcing plans to buy up cemetery land for the airport and MetroLink. The legal process took five years, and so they took possession of the cemetery — then 46 acres with 50,000 graves — in February 1995.

Bailey talked to Kuper, who had a heart condition and relied on an oxygen tank, once on the phone and once at a meeting. Months later Kuper died, and his attorneys offered the cemetery to Bailey a number of times before the price dropped low enough.

“Literally, at the closing, I slid two bucks across the table,” Bailey said.

“I saw the overgrowth. I did know that there was no money. But I just felt that because of the need or concern that the community and people who were in a position to make a change, I figured they would. I would tap into those resources to make a change.”

Bailey, then a substitute teacher, said he was immediately slammed with citations and thousands of dollars in fines from Berkeley because of the condition of the cemetery. The notices about the violations have stopped coming, but he owes at least $360,000 in taxes.

“I didn’t have the money in 2010 and I don’t have the money in 2018, either,” said Bailey, a single father who works for the city of St. Louis and has a second job picking up and transporting corpses for funeral homes.

Kuper’s company received $80,000 from condemnation proceedings from the land taken by airport and the MetroLink. The contract for the cell phone tower now standing in the cemetery brought about $700 a month, according to Kuper and 2007 court records.

“I’m going downhill and can’t do it anymore,” said Kuper, then 65, said in 2007. “I’m on oxygen and about half-dead myself. I need a grant, a wealthy individual or a crazy person to step in.”

Bailey admitted he’s not “mowing grass each day” at the cemetery but said he tried to use his communications degree to pull together philanthropic resources and volunteers to keep the cemetery afloat. He just completed a master’s program in nonprofit management at Washington University.

“Our volunteers, they’re doing the job,” Bailey said. “They’re the reason the front of the cemetery looks the way it does now.”

Meanwhile, because of the back taxes owed, he is at risk of losing the cemetery.

“It’s scary as hell that somebody could buy the property out from under me, but it’s on the tax sale,” Bailey said. “It’s still that connection to my dad.

“I just do not believe I came in contact with the cemetery like I have, to just sell it. I don’t believe that was the purpose. And I do not think anybody else will have the passion to rectify this wrong.”

‘Once upon a time’

Meanwhile, Brandon has been voicing her concerns about the billboards to public officials.

She took her campaign to the St. Louis County Council last week. Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who represents a large swath of North County including Berkeley, told Brandon her father also is buried at the cemetery.

Erby reminded the room that the cemetery is under Berkeley’s municipal authority but she promised to follow-up with Brandon.

Brandon said she planned to target other companies with advertisements on the billboards.

“It was once upon a time, Washington Park Cemetery was a very beautiful place,” she said. “That was the place blacks would go to be buried if they could afford to go there. I won’t let this go down.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.