It has taken three months of Saturdays, but Myra Coates and her volunteers have uncovered part of the historic Booker T. Washington Cemetery on Illinois 163 near Centreville.
The old cemetery was overgrown with tall weeds, Coates said.
Now there is a cleared section in the cemetery that isn't visible from the highway. But there is more to clear, she said.
Coates, of Fairview Heights, has been at the cemetery every Saturday morning since the start of June. Sometimes she has three or four helpers, sometimes a few more, she said.
Her goal is to clear more and get some kind of a system in place so that the cemetery doesn't get overgrown again.
The files of the News-Democrat report several attempts in the past decade to restore the cemetery. But each time, it has returned to the wild because of lack of continual care, Coates said.
She hopes that calling attention to the problem will bring some lasting help.
"I want someone to ask, 'What can I do to help keep this maintained?'" she said. "The people buried there deserve some dignity."
Coates said she became involved when she was looking for public service work. She had seen a group trying to get volunteers to help clean cemeteries at the East St. Louis 150th anniversary and was interested.
"But somehow, I never seemed to be available when they were working," she said. "One day, I was visiting my grandmother's grave in Sunset Hills Cemetery (across Illinois 163 from Booker T. Washington) and I saw it and was heartbroken."
The cemetery has from eight to 12 acres, according to various accounts and was established somewhere about the turn of the 20th century. It was the place where black people could be buried when other cemeteries were segregated.
Some people have said it is like a history of East St. Louis to read the names on the stones -- when you can.
Coates said she has gotten donations from Centreville Township, East St. Louis Township as well as St. Clair County.
When the group started, they found piles of trash that had been dumped. But she said since the cleaning has started they haven't had any more dumping.
While working on the cemetery, she discovered she did have a link to it -- her father discovered some of their relatives' names on stones.
"I had no idea I had relatives there," she said.
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