Billie Turner remembers going with her father to Booker T. Washington Cemetery in rural Centreville every Memorial Day to tidy up graves and pay respect to loved ones.
Today, she would have a hard time even finding the family plot with all the underbrush and thick weeds. Many headstones have been damaged, destroyed or moved by vandals.
During a recent visit, Billie, 63, of Collinsville, a family engagement specialist with Head Start, couldn’t help but feel sad.
“I majored in history, and this is an historical landmark,” she said. “I have family here. They’re not just statistical data.”
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Billie was visiting with Judy Jennings and Sandi Bennett, members of St. Clair County Genealogical Society. Judy has been researching the cemetery for 16 years, partly to help people find their ancestors.
Booker T. covers 8 to 12 acres off Illinois 163. About 13,000 black people were buried from 1919 to the early 1970s.
“There are so many people in St. Louis who don’t know their loved ones are buried on the Illinois side of the river,” said Sandi, 73, of Shiloh, a retired real-estate agent. “At that point in time, African American obituaries weren’t in the newspaper. The same goes for engagements and wedding anniversaries. You very rarely saw black announcements of any kind, unless it was something bad.”
Judy has Booker T.’s sexton ledgers, which are full of handwritten names, dates and locations of burials and, in some cases, prices and funeral homes.
She is inviting people to stop by her table at the Genealogy and History Book Fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Swansea Improvement Association Hall, where 12 organizations will sell their publications.
“I not only have the sexton records,” said Judy, 51, of O’Fallon, who works civil service at Scott Air Force Base. “I also have many of the birth and death records. What I would really like to do is get them on the Internet for free.”
There are so many people in St. Louis who don’t know their loved ones are buried on the Illinois side of the river. At that point in time, African American obituaries weren’t in the newspaper.
Sandi Bennett on genealogical challenges
Judy recently helped Moses Meadows, a Virginia man who traveled to the metro-east looking for his mother’s final resting place.
Ruby Meadows died in 1947 of pregnancy complications. She was 35. The family was living in Sparta but made arrangements through Nash Funeral Home in East St. Louis.
“I was 6 years old at the time,” said Moses, 75, who is retired from the Air Force and Navy civil service. “We were of modest means, and my father didn’t even have enough money to buy a headstone.”
The family eventually placed a flat marker, and Moses found it at Booker T. in September, after his niece saw a photo at www.ancestry.com. But it wasn’t in the right section, according to the sexton ledger.
Moses moved the marker to a new plot at Sunset Gardens of Memory across the road, and the family had a memorial service.
Moses will likely never find his mother’s remains, but while in Illinois, he was impressed by Judy and other volunteers who have tried to maintain records and clean up Booker T.
“It restored my faith in mankind, that there were people out there willing to help,” he said. “And most of the ones I talked to were white.”
13,000 Graves at Booker T.
1,400 Markers found so far
The cemetery was founded by East St. Louis undertaker R.M.C. Green, who named it after Booker T. Washington, a famous American black educator, author and activist who was born a slave in 1856 and lived to 1915.
Burials include veterans of World War I and II and the Korean War, as well as black political boss Horace Adams and Anthony Speed, St. Clair County’s first black deputy sheriff.
“Over here, there’s at least 500 babies,” Judy said, pointing to a section with all flat stones. “They date from the ’30s all the way until the ’60s. Some of them were stillborn. I was able to find their death certificates.”
After Green’s death, his descendants maintained the cemetery for decades, but lack of perpetual-care funds led to its decline. People began using it as a trash dump, party place and four-wheeler track.
In recent years, volunteers have organized several cleanups. Billie got college students involved when she was coordinating a University of Illinois service project.
“The problem is, it’s in a marsh,” Sandi said. “It floods whenever there’s heavy rain, and in the blink of an eye, it seems to grow back up again.”
When Judy started her research in 2000, descendants were tying plastic bags to trees and bushes to help them find grave sites.
In recent years, Booker T. has found a friend in Rick Ramirez, 35, of Cahokia, a private highway contractor who owns 60 acres next to the cemetery. He’s been making road and other improvements, with help from St. Clair County.
“I guess I’m kind of the caretaker,” Ramirez said. “But I can only do what I can do. ... It’s gotten better out here. We just need a couple of clean-ups.”
Judy has counted 1,400 remaining grave markers, but she’s convinced more are either buried or hidden in underbrush.
Those that are visible range from marble monuments to a Woodman’s stone shaped like a tree stump. A homemade concrete slab appears to have been engraved with a stick.
Perhaps the most well-kept grave site belongs to Prince Wells, former owner of a Brooklyn dry cleaning business and pool hall, who lived from 1896 to 1962. It’s weed-free and landscaped with mulch.
Prince Wells III, 62, of St. Louis, helps his father, Prince Wells Jr., 91, of Dellwood, Mo., do the maintenance.
It’s something of a family duty. I watched my father do this for over 40 years. He doesn’t want his father’s grave to be abandoned, and I can help him do something about that.
Prince Wells III on grave maintenance
“It’s something of a family duty,” said Prince III, a music professor and head of Black Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “I watched my father do this for over 40 years. He doesn’t want his father’s grave to be abandoned, and I can help him do something about that.”
Prince III also is a genealogy enthusiast who has taken photos of headstones at Booker T. and nearby St. George cemeteries and posted them online to help others trace family trees.
Billie hopes to someday see a nonprofit organization, government agency or other interested party come forward and make a serious effort to save what is left of the cemetery.
“The people who are buried here ... We’re standing on their shoulders,” she said. “We owe them a peaceful resting place.”
At a glance
- What: Genealogy and History Book Fair
- When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Swansea Improvement Association Hall, 301 Service St. in Swansea
- Participants: St. Clair County Genealogical Society, St. Clair County Historical Society, St. Louis Genealogical Society, New Athens Historical Society, Mascoutah Historical Society, Marissa Historical And Genealogical Society, Lebanon Historical Society, O'Fallon Historical Society, Belleville Historical Society, Sons of the American Revolution, Macoupin County Historical Society and Jefferson County (Mo.) Genealogical Society.
- Admission: Free
- Information: www.stclair-ilgs.org or 618-235-7973