Metro-East Living

Complaints filed after logging damages historic black cemetery

This 1925 headstone for Lela Simpson was pushed to the side of logging road at the old St. George Cemetery near Centreville.
This 1925 headstone for Lela Simpson was pushed to the side of logging road at the old St. George Cemetery near Centreville.

Local genealogists and archaeologists are concerned about logging damage in an historic black cemetery between Millstadt and Centreville that has graves from the 1800s and early 1900s, including those of Civil War soldiers.

They’ve complained to local authorities about logging trucks driving through the hilly, overgrown property, known as St. George Cemetery, and knocking over, breaking or moving headstones, some a century or more old.

An investigation that followed has been turned over to the St. Clair County state’s attorney’s office.

“It’s history, and it’s being destroyed, and nobody seems to care,” said cemetery researcher Judy Jennings, of O’Fallon, a member of the St. Clair County Genealogical Society.

The St. Clair County coroner’s office and sheriff’s department turned the case over to the state’s attorney’s office as a possible violation of the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, which prohibits people from disturbing protected remains or grave markers without a permit from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA).

St. George is an unregistered cemetery located next to Sunset Gardens of Memory, an active, predominantly black cemetery off Illinois 163. St. George is divided into two parcels: One is owned by Sunset Gardens and one is being held for back taxes by the St. Clair County trustee, according to property records in the county assessor’s office.

Both parcels are located just west of a section of Sunset Gardens that is heavily wooded and not presently used for burials.

Logging and grave damage occurred on the parcel shown by public records to be owned by Sunset Gardens, but Carl Officer, co-owner of Sunset Gardens, disputes the records, saying his family owns no part of St. George Cemetery.

“This might be improperly registered by the county,” he said. “... We don’t own any property that has headstones.”

Sunset Gardens has flat grave markers.

Officer is a former East St. Louis mayor who operates Officer Funeral Home in East St. Louis. He recently lost the race for county coroner to Calvin Dye Sr., a Democrat. Officer said no one from the state’s attorney’s office has contacted him about the cemetery complaints.

“We were paid by a company to do some logging on (Sunset Gardens) property, but we don’t have any property associated with those two cemeteries,” he said, referring to the two sections of St. George.

Legal issues regarding the logging initially were raised by Mera Hertel, graphics manager at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey of the University of Illinois, who filed complaints with the county coroner’s office and sheriff’s department last summer.

Hertel’s co-worker, senior research archaeologist Patrick Durst, walked the property with a sheriff’s deputy and a deputy coroner, who contacted State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly in July. The sheriff’s department filed its report Sept. 6.

“The law says that you’re supposed to leave (a cemetery) alone, even if it’s on your private property,” Deputy Coroner Dennis Nichols said. “You don’t have to maintain it, but you certainly can’t destroy it or disturb it.”

Nichols said he verified that logging had taken place at St. George, that damage had been done to graves and that the property was owned by Sunset Gardens. He interviewed cemetery staff.

“Their story changed several times during the investigation,” Nichols said, noting it ranged from a denial that logging had occurred to an acknowledgment that loggers had been allowed but were instructed only to clear underbrush.

Last month, cemetery office manager Angie Skinner said staff gave logger Travis Nash of Nash Hardwoods permission to cut down trees in the section of Sunset Gardens that is wooded.

Nash did not return calls seeking comment.

“The guys came out here and logged, and we showed them the boundary lines, and we told them to stay within our boundaries,” Skinner said.

Durst also sent a complaint letter to the IHPA about the St. George logging. Cases involving damage to human remains at cemeteries can be handled by the IHPA, the Illinois attorney general or the local state’s attorney’s office, according to IHPA spokesman Chris Wills.

“In this case, the state’s attorney told us in September that they would be handling it, and they would contact us if they needed anything further,” he said.

On Thursday, Kelly called the case “complicated.” He said his office had received the sheriff’s department report and requested follow-up investigation, which is now taking place.

“We’ll be meeting with them soon to go over all that information,” Kelly said.

The roots of the St. George controversy go back to last spring, when Jennings, the genealogist, set up a booth at a Swansea book fair to help descendants of people buried at nearby Booker T. Washington Cemetery find their ancestors.

Booker T. is another abandoned black cemetery across Illinois 163 from St. George and Sunset Gardens. It has been plagued by vandalism, flooding and neglect. Many headstones are missing, but Jennings has the sexton records.

“It was amazing,” Jennings said of the book fair turnout. “I never got a lunch break the whole time. I would say there were 30 or 40 people I did research on.”

All the visitors to Jennings’ booth were black, except Karen Rasmussen-Mark, who is white. She lived more than 40 years on property that bordered St. George. She thought Jennings would want to know about the graves of black Civil War soldiers she had seen while roaming the woods as a girl, some with photos of them in uniform on headstones.

“Even when I was a little kid, it had already been forgotten (and was being taken over by nature),” said Rasmussen-Mark, of Belleville.

Rasmussen-Mark took Jennings to St. George in May. That’s when they saw logging roads, stacks of giant logs, sawdust and headstones that had been moved or damaged by trucks.

“You could see big tire marks,” Jennings said. “They had made roads and plowed right over stones with no respect at all. There was oil all over the place. There were jugs of chemicals that they were using to kill the weeds. It was just a mess.”

The archaeologists and genealogists believe St. George may contain hundreds of black graves, marked, unmarked and partially marked with pottery shards and knickknacks, as was common in the day. They weren’t able to reach the oldest section because of steep inclines and thick underbrush.

On a visit to a more-accessible part of St. George this fall, tears welled up in Rasmussen-Marks’ eyes when she saw headstones toppled over.

“This is disgusting,” she said, standing near Lela Simpson’s 1925 headstone pushed to the side of a logging road. “It just turns my stomach. I almost feel like crying.”

Jennings and others have located St. Clair County Courthouse records for about a dozen headstones at St. George, dated 1905 to 1925. Causes of death range from typhoid fever to nephritis (kidney inflammation).

One headstone names William Chapman, a Civil War veteran who died of tuberculosis in 1914. It reads “CO. B, 3 U.S.C.H.A. (Company B, 3rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery).”

“That’s a big deal,” said Billie Turner, who has family buried in Booker T. Washington Cemetery and who has helped Jennings with research. “These Buffalo soldiers (the nickname for black Civil War soldiers) were looked up to. They made sacrifices. They fought to free people, even though they weren’t free themselves. They were courageous, and they were respected for that. They were considered leaders. They weren’t afraid to take a stand.”

Turner is an East St. Louis native who lives in Collinsville and works as a social worker for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Head Start program.

She has no known ancestors in St. George but doesn’t want it destroyed because, she said, few written records of blacks exist from those days. Many newspapers didn’t publish their wedding or birth announcements or obituaries, she said.

“It’s so important to preserve African-American cemeteries,” Turner said. “They tell you a story. They give you a flavor of what was happening at the time and help you understand why things are the way they are today.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter