It’s impossible to see from the street, so you would never know it’s there.
To get to St. George Cemetery, especially its oldest section, you have to make your way past branches and thorns, across the weathered hills and over downed trees. Eventually, dozens of scattered headstones, some of them knocked over, come into view. And there, sitting upright is the gravestone of William Chapman, an African-American veteran of the Civil War who died March 21, 1904.
My interest in abandoned African-American cemeteries started in graduate school when I was assigned to write a story about a black woman named Rose Sturdivant Young, who was leading the charge to restore an abandoned cemetery in North Carolina. Her father, mother and other ancestors are buried there.
African-American cemeteries across the country have largely been neglected, their powerful histories obscured by weeds, debris and, as much as anything, the passage of time. Few people know their locations. Fewer still know the stories of the people buried there.
When I came to ProPublica Illinois as a reporting fellow, I saw a chance to look into this issue. I focused on two cemeteries in St. Clair County, a few miles southeast of St. Louis across the Mississippi River: St. George and Booker T. Washington Cemetery. I spent time hiking the grounds with folks who are trying to unearth and preserve the histories of the cemeteries, as well as trying to keep up the cemeteries themselves.
Both cemeteries once served as the final resting places for the black communities in and around St. Clair County. Of the thousands of people buried in the two cemeteries, close to 30 African-American veterans have been identified, including at least one — Chapman — from the Civil War. But they were more than just cemeteries. Black residents, according to local lore, used Booker T. Washington as a shelter during the East St. Louis race riots in 1917, when white mobs murdered dozens of black citizens. After the riots, many of the victims of the violence supposedly were buried there.
“The black cemeteries are being destroyed, accidentally or on purpose,” said Judy Jennings, a U.S. Air Force contract specialist and amateur historian who, for nearly two decades, has been researching the cemeteries, especially Booker T. Washington. “It’s important to preserve this history.”
It’s difficult to estimate the number of abandoned cemeteries among the thousands of licensed and unlicensed cemeteries in Illinois. The state doesn’t seem to keep track and no one, as far as I can tell, has studied the issue in enough detail to compile a list. But funeral home directors and others I spoke with said there could be many, from plots on private farms and other family property to large cemeteries like St. George and Booker T. Washington.
As segregation eased over the decades and other cemeteries began to allow blacks to be buried, Booker T. Washington and St. George became overgrown and neglected. Over time, many people forgot they existed.
Today, Booker T. Washington sits in a large bowl at the bottom of a hill and frequently floods. Conditions at St. George, which is hidden deep in the woods, are worse. In fact, logging trucks drove through the cemetery in July 2016 and crushed a number of the headstones. Police investigated the incident but no one was charged.
After spending time in St. Clair County and talking with descendants of some of those buried at Booker T. Washington and St. George, as well as with researchers like Jennings, I concluded the abandonment of the cemeteries was mostly the result of a series of unfortunate circumstances, instead of deliberate neglect.
Other abandoned cemeteries probably faced similar fates. People stopped burying loved ones there and, because these are not public lands, there’s no taxpayer money to maintain them. Over time, no one was left to do the weeding and other necessary upkeep. Owners — private citizens when they opened — died and, according to the St. Clair County Genealogical Society, which has studied the cemeteries, it was unclear who took over ownership.
Only a few descendants still try to maintain plots.
Perhaps the best we can do after so many years is recognize that these cemeteries were once central to African-American communities and learn what we can from them. If you are aware of any abandoned historically black cemeteries in Illinois or know of historical societies researching this area, please get in touch. Email me at [email protected].
On July 23, 1967, Detroit, Michigan, became the scene of a five-day riot that remains one of the deadliest civil disturbances in the United States. The intensity and relentlessness of the riot forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to call on the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to restore peace in the city. By the end of the week, over 2,000 buildings were destroyed, over 1,000 injuries and nearly 50 civilians, military and police officers were killed.
What happened in the Motor City was one of 159 “race riots” that occurred during the long, hot summer of ’67, but it’s the most memorable and influential; for many living in Detroit, the city has never fully recovered.
Despite the national media attention the riots garnered, the story of the Detroit Riot is often skipped over in schools (as most race riots are), so when the trailer for Detroit, an upcoming film that chronicles part of the 1967 riots, was released, many viewers took to social media to vent their frustration about never learning this important piece of American history in school.
So crazy to me that a lot of schools in MI don’t teach or even speak of the Detroit riots
Historians dispute whether the 12th Street Riot, as it’s called, was actually a race riot because of the multicultural demographic of the rioters. However, race was certainly the catalyst. In the early morning hours of July 23, Detroit police officers raided a local unlicensed drinking club with the expectation of catching a few random occupants. They were instead met by 82 African Americans welcoming two GIs home from Vietnam, and decided to arrest the entire party. While officers waited for transportation, a crowd of onlookers gathered and Walter Scott III threw a bottle at the police, initiating the riot.
As looters tore through the streets of Detroit, city police stood by waiting for the melee to diffuse, which it never did. The arrival of the Michigan National Guard the following day did little to stop the riot as crowds continued to vandalize white- and black-owned business, sparing no one in the process. The riot grew almost effortlessly, fueled by a suppressed rage that seemed to have no end. An overwhelmed police force was found guilty of abusing civilians in their custody, including the tragic shooting deaths of three black men during the Algiers Motel Incident.
Sid. E. Taylor, the founder of Detroit-based SET Enterprises, U.S. Marine, and Vietnam combat veteran, was just 18 years old in 1967 and vividly remembers riding a convertible straight into the middle of the riots with his older brother and a friend.
“A friend of ours was driving the car, I had a video camera and I sat on the back of the car and we were driving around acting silly like we were news reporters filming what was going on,” Taylor recalls. “The National Guard was out there and we drove by an apartment building and somebody pointed a gun at the car and said, ‘You n——- better get out of here before we blow your head off.’ And you know what we did? We lifted the roof and got ourselves outta there.”
Taylor admits that in hindsight it was a bad decision to drive into the riots considering the scale of violence, but he says they were “curiously nervous” because Detroit “had made the news. Every time you turned on the television they were showing the streets and we knew all these places.”
Much of the city was destroyed during the riots, leaving thousands without a place to work or live, and businesses that were unharmed shut down for safety purposes. Taylor and his brother worked for General Motors at the time and were told not to go into work because of the hostile atmosphere throughout the city, which included curfew violations, fights, and multiple fires.
Looters continued to steal millions of dollars of merchandise, including a few of Taylor’s friends who stole TV sets from a local business. “It got so bad that they canceled our work because it was too dangerous to move. Black people were mad and white people were scared and everyone was kinda scared to go anywhere.”
The presence of mainly white military worsened the violence initially, but within 48 hours the riot had been contained and dissipated. In the span of a week, Detroit went from being a leader in race relations for its time to a city reeling from the pain of a tragic and violent race riot. Many of the themes and concerns that arose from the 1967 riot, such as police brutality, racial unrest, and discrimination have emerged in urban centers across the country since: in Los Angeles in 1992, and cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Famed baseball outfielder Willie Horton drew a comparison between Detroit and Baltimore following the 2015 riots in response to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. Horton, who now lives in Baltimore, called the recent events “flashbacks” to the moment he left his Tigers game July 23, 1967, and drove into the riots, standing on the hood of his car pleading with the city he loved to restore peace.
Police brutality and the ethics of rioting are far from resolved, but in preparation for the 50th anniversary, Kathryn Bigelow (the only female Oscar winner for best director) hopes her story of the Detroit riots will honor those lost during the incident and incite discussion about these issues. While the film focuses on the harrowing Algiers motel incident, it comes at a prime time in our country and joins many commemorative events like the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67: Perspectivesexhibit, which runs through 2019.
The camera Taylor was carrying that day didn’t have any film in it, but the images from his personal memories are just as strong. When asked if he’s excited to see Detroit, he said, “Absolutely. I’m probably going to see it more than once.”
Detroit will open in theaters nationwide Friday, August 4.
With the release of films such as 12 Years a Slaveand TheBirth of a Nationand the re-make of the “Roots” mini-series in 2016, we have seen our fair share of the history of black slavery. However, the past few years may have marked the beginning of a burgeoning interest of millennials and younger in exploring slavery, the eventual emancipation of slaves and beyond.
While the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, it would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to learn of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in the city and told them they were free. In years since, June 19 began to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth and in 1980, the Texan legislature established Juneteenth as a state holiday. Still, the celebration of Juneteenth, which has been inconsistent throughout the course of history, has yet to achieve the recognition and popularity of other official American holidays.
Rev. Ronald V. Meyers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has been working since 1994 when he helped organize the foundation that is working to have Juneteenth recognized as a national American holiday. “Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a special day of recognition or observance. We’re still missing North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, and Hawaii,” says Meyers.
Myers learned about Juneteenth through celebrations in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We had one of the largest celebrations around and it was then that I began to understand the history of our freedom in America, and I took that with me wherever I went.”
By 1994, Myers, who was living in Louisiana then, met with Juneteenth enthusiasts from across the country at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was selected to be the chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation at the meeting. “We wanted to work together for greater recognition of Juneteenth to make it like Flag Day and have a day set aside for the celebration.”
While Myers has been successful in securing senate resolutions in 2014 and 2015, designating June 19 as Juneteenth, he had hoped to gain former President Barack Obama’s support of Juneteenth by his last year in office.
“When President Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he supported legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2003. And when he was a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to recognize Juneteenth in the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he hasn’t issued a proclamation to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance as president or held a Juneteenth celebration at the White House. I don’t know why since the White House was built by slaves.”
While Obama did not issue a proclamation, he did issue a statement on June 19, 2015 supporting the observance of Juneteenth which was posted on the White House website. He also referenced the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E., which occurred a year ago on June 17. To read the statement, click here.
The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s great-grandparents who were slaves. (Photo Courtesy of Floyd Cooper)
Similarly to Meyers, Floyd Cooper, children’s book author and illustrator, remembers celebrating Juneteenth in Haskell, Oklahoma where he grew up. “I’m from a very large extended family, and all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone would get together and have big cookouts for Juneteenth.”
He also remembers hearing about his family’s history from his great-grandparents who were freed slaves and lived in a home built from stone in Oklahoma. They migrated to Oklahoma after packing up in a covered wagon and leaving Texas. Before that, they moved from Georgia where they worked as slaves on a plantation owned by an Irish man. “They said he never whipped them which was important for them,” Cooper says.
His great-grandparents also kept a photograph of one of their slave ancestors from Georgia in their home. “I remember being a child looking up at that photograph. It was in one of those oval frames.”
While he hasn’t been able to link his great-grandparents directly to the slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston, Texas, he did draw from his own family’s history to write and illustrate Juneteenth for Mazie, a children’s picture book of the history of Juneteenth which was published in 2015 .
In the book, Mazie’s father teaches young Mazie about the struggles and the triumphs of her family’s past as they prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. “Juneteenth is a great American holiday,” Cooper says.
“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.
“Emancipation Day celebrations took place May 8 for some and August 8 for others.” Penrice also pointed out in her book that many of the celebrations stopped after 1920 when black people moved to larger cities and wanted to disassociate from their rural pasts.
However, while Meyers agrees that slaves learned about their freedom on various days, he still believes that freedom from slavery should be celebrated.
“My challenge to African Americans is ‘What day do you celebrate our freedom?'” he says. “On the 4th of July when Americans of African descent were still caught up in the tyranny of slavery?”
Do you and the people you know observe Juneteenth? Why or why not? Sound off below.