A major Illinois highway project has been complicated by the discovery of human remains at the former site of an historic black cemetery in Washington Park.
An Illinois State Archaeological Survey crew conducted a preliminary investigation last week around the interchange of Interstate 64 and Kingshighway, which is Illinois 111. The area is of interest because the Illinois Department of Transportation is planning a $28.5 million replacement of the 111 bridge over 64 and its connecting ramps.
“We just wanted to confirm that there were grave shafts, and in doing that, there were some bones exposed that looked like they were human bones,” said Brad Koldehoff, manager of the cultural resource unit in IDOT’s environmental section. “They were not collected. None of the graves were excavated or dug into. That would come at a later stage when we figure out how we can avoid or minimize impacts.”
Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery (also known as Lawn Ridge Cemetery) was a “popular burial ground of the East St. Louis Negro community,” according to a 1968 story in the Belleville News-Democrat. It adjoined a St. Clair County pauper’s cemetery for a total of about 25 acres, but it was largely abandoned after World War II, and many of the tombstones disappeared.
In 1968, the state hired an East St. Louis company to move 3,000 graves to nearby Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Sunset Memorial Gardens, making way for construction of Interstate 64 and its Illinois 111 interchange.
The recent discovery of bones that apparently got left behind requires IDOT to take a series of steps under the Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act. It’s too early to tell what those steps will be, Koldehoff said, but they could range from overpass-project design changes to relocation of some remains.
“Right now, we don’t know how many actual graves were moved when they built the highway,” Koldehoff said. “We would hope that most of the graves were moved. But it’s going to take further investigation.”
That may or may not delay the overpass project, Koldehoff said. He noted that IDOT always sets aside time for environmental studies, which can include doing field investigations, reading old newspaper articles and talking to local residents to identify factors for consideration.
Local man expressed concern
Washington Park resident Scott Rose alerted IDOT officials to the existence of Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery in August. He couldn’t attend a public meeting on the Interstate 64 overpass project, but a friend gave him a comment form, which he filled out and mailed.
Rose, 56, had learned about the cemetery several years ago when doing research in advance of buying property near Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, where Rose works in security. Rose, who is white, also is president of Washington Park Volunteer Firemens Association.
“It bothered me that there was no memorial or remembrance of one of the oldest African American cemeteries in the area,” he said.
Rose felt even worse when talking to his son’s friend, Nick Menn, 30, of Fairview Heights, a musician and lawn-care worker. Menn has done extensive research on East St. Louis history, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, the late Sandi Bennett, a well-known genealogist.
Menn, who is white, believes some black victims of the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917 were buried in Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery and the adjoining pauper’s cemetery. The official death count was nine whites and 39 blacks, but the NAACP estimated that 100 to 200 blacks were killed and hundreds more injured, including children.
“The way records were kept back then, the estimates of how many people died was way off,” Menn said.
Judy Jennings, a Monroe County Genealogical Society member and expert on black cemeteries in the region, remembers reading a newspaper article about a woman who was moved from Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery to Booker T. Washington Cemetery in 1969.
“I’ve researched the original (Washington cemetery) sexton records, and I don’t recall seeing anything in those records about people being moved from Douglas or Lawnridge, but I know they were moved,” she said.
State bought 3,000 burial plots
The state of Illinois hired Keeley Bros. Construction Co. in East St. Louis to move graves from Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery in 1968 to make way for construction of Interstate 64 and its Illinois 111 interchange, according to the BND story. It submitted the low bid of $1,495,616.
The state spent another $105,000 for 3,000 three-by-eight-foot burial plots in Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Sunset Memorial Gardens, both historically black cemeteries. Officials also worked to locate descendants by holding public meetings and taking out newspaper, radio and TV advertisements.
Keeley erected a tall chain-link fence around Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery to keep out trespassers and hung a cloth screen to obscure the view from roadways.
“The enforcement is partly to shun desecration of this hallowed ground, but of almost equal importance is a public health safeguard,” the BND reported at the time. “Every member of the 38-man work force daily engaged here has been vaccinated and inoculated with an exotic array of antitoxins as a precaution against contraction of some strange and unknown plague.
“The fact that nearly 80 percent of the workers are colored men tends to refute the charge recently leveled that Negroes are universally discriminated against on highway jobs in this part of the state,” the story added.
Cemetery excavation began in the spring of 1968, and 1,557 graves had been moved by mid-August. Officials described that as the “easy” part because it involved clearly-marked graves with stone monuments. The challenging part was finding unmarked graves.
“’Lost’ graves are found by excavating a series of parallel trenches four feet apart with a small backhoe,” the BND reported. “This machine affords the operator a measure of ‘feel’ in his digging. The backhoe is closely followed by a crew of laborers with spades and shovels for close scrutiny. After 40 years interment, there isn’t much left aside from a thin gray coffin outline and occasionally a rusty nail, tooth or bone fragment.
“A few scoops of this material are deposited in a man-size wooden box painted gray, sealed and transported for reburial. Every few minutes, hearses depart Douglas-Lawnridge bound for Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Sunset Memorial Gardens, at the foot of the bluffs in Centreville Township. There, dignified Christian funeral rites are conducted at frequent intervals throughout every day.”
Farmer cleared off pauper’s section
Carl Weissert, 77, of Fairview Heights, has been farming his family’s land southeast of the Interstate 64-Illinois 111 interchange for more than 60 years. He remembers a fleet of vehicles, both hearses and old ambulances, passing by on a regular basis when Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery was being moved in the 1960s.
Weissert’s farm adjoined the pauper’s cemetery. After the human remains were moved, he started leasing the property from Canteen Township and farming it, he said. But first, he had to clear out overgrown brush and dozens of concrete grave markers, which were about a foot tall and narrow with rounded tops. They had no names, only numbers.
“I’ve taken over other people’s farms, and I always watch out for anything that connects the land to my predecessors,” Weissert said, noting that he’s collected items ranging from the grave markers to antique water pumps and farm implements. “I call it ‘Carl’s Canteen Collection’ because it all came from Canteen Township.”
The Illinois Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, passed in 1989, is designed to protect the safety and sanctity of unregistered and unmarked graves and discourage the desecration of human remains and vandalism to grave markers.
It’s illegal for anyone without a permit to knowingly disturb remains or grave markers, including Indian mounds, in unregistered cemeteries more than 100 years old on public or private land. Someone who discovers remains must notify the county coroner within 48 hours.
The Interstate 64 overpass project is in IDOT’s Proposed Highway Improvement Program for 2019-2024, also known as its Multi-Year Plan. A construction date hasn’t been set.
IDOT wants to replace the Illinois 111 bridge because it was built in 1973 and remains largely in original condition, except for deck patching and other repairs, according to a project description. Officials also point to its clearance of 14 feet and one inch above the interstate, which is below the current standard minimum of 16 feet.
“Crash history in this location reflects that the clearance distance between Interstate 64 and the structure that carries IL Route 111 over Interstate 64 is not sufficient,” the description states. “... This structure has been struck by tractor trailers and equipment being hauled by trucks traveling on Interstate 64.”