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'Black Lives do matter, even after death': Billboards in historic, Black cemetery coming down after activist's fight

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BERKELEY — For decades, three commercial billboards advertising to motorists on Interstate 70 in Berkeley towered above the graves of dozens of Black people laid to rest in Washington Park Cemetery, once the St. Louis region’s preeminent Black burial site.

On Monday, activist Wanda Brandon, whose grandmother is buried near the billboards, watched construction crews begin to take the billboards down.

Brandon launched a campaign two years ago to remove the billboards and sued the owners, DDI Media, arguing the structures desecrated the memory of the people buried there. The company agreed in July to take them down.

“This is a victorious day,” said Brandon, 60, of St. Louis, while she watched construction crews. “Black Lives do matter even after death, and they deserve to be respected and protected.”

The billboards, on which several companies have advertised over the years, weren’t technically in the cemetery; the strip of land they sit on was sold in 1986 to the company, then Drury Displays Inc., an affiliate of the Drury Inn and Hotels company.

The billboards, which were installed amid graves, followed a series of construction projects that disturbed cemetery ground.

Built in 1920 as a for-profit burial site, the cemetery was originally 75 acres. Construction of I-70 in the late 1950s split the cemetery in two. St. Louis Lambert International Airport bought 9 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 that workers rushed the process, damaging remains and mismanaging records. Many said they lost track of relatives’ graves.

Basmin Red Deer, of St. Louis, has an extended family member whose remains were among those disinterred and subsequently lost.

Red Deer said Brandon was her “champion” for removing the billboards, which she said is timely given recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“This is a welcome day,” said Red Deer, who is searching for her grandparents’ graves amid overgrowth near the billboards. “I’m elated that in this time, where a lot of truth is shining all over the United States on inequities, that here is another inequity that we’re taking first steps on correcting.”

While many historic cemeteries have suffered upheaval to make way for expanding cities, Washington Park Cemetery and other historic Black cemeteries were further squandered under discriminatory policies, said Michael Allen, an architectural historian with Washington University in St. Louis.

Washington Park was founded as a for-profit cemetery by two white businessmen who supported restrictions burying African-Americans in St. Louis. The cemetery did not retain the type of financial endowment that helps preserve other cemeteries, he said.

“The highway, light rail and billboards running through there are all affronts to memory,” Allen said, “and things you would not find at cemeteries where there are more stable finances and reverence.”

Burials in Washington Park Cemetery ended by 1991, when the cemetery’s third owner killed herself after the state sued her for neglect.

More than half the roughly 42-acre site, which contains about 40,000 graves, has since become overgrown with grass and trees. Roads are deteriorating, and headstones tipped over and cracked.

Volunteers have for several years spent thousands of dollars to maintain roughly 20 acres of the cemetery along Natural Bridge, but they have been unable to fix up the remaining half.

The majority Black city of Berkeley last year opted to buy the cemetery but the sale was never completed.

The current owner, Kevin Bailey, is the cemetery’s first Black owner and the first with relatives buried there. He bought the cemetery in 2009 for $2 from the estate of a deceased lawyer who had also bought the property once the county placed liens on it for delinquent taxes.

Bailey had hopes of reclaiming the cemetery but struggled to organize an effort large enough to clear the overgrown portion. The company he formed to own the cemetery, Amazing Grace Properties, owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes for the land.

Bailey, whose father is buried in the cemetery, did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

In a lengthy statement Monday, DDI Media said the company had sought a compromise to keep the billboards while supporting efforts to reclaim the cemetery. The billboards will be removed by Friday, the company said, after which it will maintain the parcel of land it owns.

“While we had hoped to be part of the solution to address the long-term future of the cemetery, we are not willing to go through ongoing and costly litigation to help. … Removing these structures will be difficult, but we will do so in a careful and respectful way to continue to honor the memories of those buried there.”

Brandon on Monday also thanked Hazel Erby, director of the St. Louis County’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, for her help in taking down the billboards.

Erby, whose father is buried at the cemetery, supported Brandon's campaign and is helping oversee the billboard's dismantling. She recalled once visiting her father's gravesite and briefly being unable to find it amid overgrowth. 

Erby said her office hopes to establish a workforce development program that would enlist people to help clear the cemetery and gain on-site job training.  

“The demise and the way our burial grounds for our ancestors have been treated is also an indication of the discrimination we dealt with in our community​,” Erby said. "I’m hoping we can move the cemetery forward and restore it." 

This week marks the 76th anniversary of Brandon’s grandmother’s burial, she said. Her mother and sister are also buried in the cemetery, in graves Brandon is still working to find.

“This feels real sweet,” Brandon said, “to be able to honor them and be their voice.”

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Reporter covering St. Louis County politics. 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.

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