MILLSTADT, Ill. (AP) — The winding, narrow road to Booker T. Washington Cemetery off Illinois 163 between Millstadt and Cahokia Heights is ominous. It’s inundated with potholes and doesn’t give any sign of where it leads. It is mysterious.
The area is filled with overgrown weeds, and there’s trash in some parts. But beyond the menacing road and debris are scattered gravestones encompassing a rich history. Booker T. Washington Cemetery was one of the only places where Black residents in the metro east could bury their loved ones.
Now, a local fraternity wants people to know about the cemetery’s history by making the area more welcoming.
“A lot of people did not know that that cemetery existed, so I just want to bring life into that cemetery, and hopefully the community will get involved,” said Ronald McClellan, an East St. Louis native.
McClellan is a member of the Nu Gamma Sigma alumni chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. Since last month, the Belleville-based chapter has hosted weekly cleanups of the cemetery, led by McClellan, in an effort to make it more attractive for visitors and less hidden.
Every Saturday, weather permitting, the fraternity and other volunteers mow the lawn and cut down weeds. On Fridays, the fraternity marks the portion of the cemetery where they’ll clean the next day.
McClellan said this year’s focus was on the middle section, while next year’s will be on the cemetery’s outer edges.
“We’re taking short steps,” McClellan said. ”We mark off the areas either with marking tape or paint for where we’re going to start and where we’re going to stop.”
“There’s a house there on the property, well just off the property, and I was talking to the guy there and he was telling me how it’s been kind of neglected,” McClellan said. “People would come out there and do drugs, there were homeless people camping out there and it was just not getting any attention. It was kind of forgotten.”
McClellan, 49, learned about the cemetery’s state nearly 20 years ago when he worked for Centreville’s Police Department. He works now as a detective for the East St. Louis Police Department.
Last fall, as he was doing funeral detail in the area, he decided to go to the cemetery again and noticed that it was still in a dilapidated state. So he brought the cleanup idea to his fraternity brothers.
“Some of the guys really didn’t understand until they got out there and physically saw these headstones that were in these trees and overgrown brush,” McClellan said. “[They were] just inspired when we went out there and saw it, so that’s what got us started.”
Washington was born into slavery in Virginia 1856. After the Civil War, he and his family became free, and he grew to be a leading African-American intellectual of the 19th century. He founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1881 and the National Negro Business League two decades later.
Washington clashed with another Black intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois, over the path Blacks should take to achieve equality with whites. Washington counseled a slow approach: He advised Blacks to drop their efforts to win full civil rights and political power and instead to cultivate industrial and farming skills to attain economic security and, eventually, respect and acceptance by whites.
He wrote a dozen books, including his autobiography, “Up from Slavery” (1901). He died in 1915 in Tuskegee, Ala.
Booker T. Washington Cemetery was founded by R.M.C. Green, an East St. Louis undertaker. From 1919 to around the early 1970s, more than 12,000 Black people from mainly the East St. Louis, Alorton and Centreville areas were buried there.
Judy Jennings, a volunteer with the St. Clair County Historical Society, has researched the cemetery since 2000 and wants more people to understand its deep history.
“There are a lot of stones,” Jennings said about the nearly 8-acre cemetery. “A lot of stones have been destroyed over the years, not from mankind, it’s more erosion. There’s been flooding back there over the years, trash has been dumped back there. A lot of people don’t even know it’s there.”
That’s why she applauds the fraternity’s work.
“There have been many groups who’ve tried to clean it up, and it’s an overwhelming task. … This group, I have never seen a group like this,” Jennings said. “They are very determined and they are very excited about getting this cleaned up and keeping it clean.”
The cemetery is filled with many veterans, according to Jennings. Anthony Speed, St. Clair County’s first Black deputy sherif,f is also buried there. R.M.C. Green is, too. Jennings is currently researching a person named Will Smith, who was born into slavery and buried at the cemetery.
“There is so much out there historically, and I’m just so happy that these guys are doing this work as quickly as they’re doing it and [with] their determination, because this is going to really turn this cemetery around,” Jennings said. “This is really going to help make this a nice place to go again, and hopefully down the road, once we have time to fix some of the stones that have been broken that maybe some of the families can start visiting. That’s what the plan is.”
With the help of Jennings, the fraternity hopes to have a website where people in the area can have easy access to the names of loved ones buried there. They also hope to make the cemetery a state historical landmark. But that work starts with cleaning the area.
“It’s actually really sad because when you’re out there, you’re seeing a headstone deep in a wooded brush area, and it made me think of that being someone’s loved one,” McClellan said about cleaning the cemetery. “It’s just extremely sad. That was a person. Whoever loved and cared about that person, they’re no longer here, and it’s like they become forgotten.”
Carlos Glenn, 52, was born and raised in East St. Louis. He’s also the president of the Nu Gamma Sigma Alumni Chapter. He vaguely knew about his aunties’, uncles’ and cousins’ being buried at the Booker T. Washington Cemetery, but his mother recently brought it to his attention.
“Before I went out there, because that was my first time, I talked to my mom because she expressed that I had some relatives out there in that cemetery that I had never had any discussions with her about where they were,” Glenn said. “So when I went out there and saw the outgrowth of the weeds and stuff like that, it was kind of disheartening. It made me feel bad.”
But he’s grateful that his chapter, which was chartered in 2002, is able to help make the cemetery less forgotten. It makes him take pride in the history there, especially considering how it aligns with the fraternity’s mission. Being a part of a Black fraternity, whose history is rooted in segregation, and cleaning a Black cemetery that also exists because of segregation is something he thinks about.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity was founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. , in 1914. It’s one of nine Black Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, also known as the “Divine Nine”, included in the umbrella organization of The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). The formation of NPHC organizations was a response to Black students being denied entry into white fraternities and sororities.
“Service is a mainstay of every Black Greek organization, but one of the other mainstays of Black Greek organizations is history,” Glenn said. “That’s the one aspect of being involved with a fraternity like Phi Beta Sigma or any of the other major Black Greek organizations that’s uncounted for.
“You have to know your history as an organizational member of the organization, but that history goes back to the early 1900s and you learn to appreciate that history. We were acknowledging our history, trying to protect our history and trying to make sure that that history isn’t forgotten, so from an indirect way that mission that Ron helped us to initiate pulled us back into that mission of the historical preservation of a particular area.”
Henry Anderson, 71, another member of the Nu Gamma Sigma Alumni Chapter, also has family members buried at the cemetery. His step-grandmother, who died in 1954, is buried there, and his father, who died a decade later, is too. He hasn’t been able to locate their gravestones. It’s part of the reason why he says his fraternity brothers are inspired to continue cleaning the area.
“Some of them have relatives buried out there, and it’s kind of an uneasiness. … Once you enter into the actual cemetery and you get in there and you look and you say what has happened? Why was this allowed to happen,?” Anderson said. “Well, we’re at the point now in saying what can we do as an organization, as a group of young, middle-age, old Black men, what can we do to make this effort? I think with the effort that we’re putting in, the contact we’ve been making, we’re going to make an impact, and that is a thing that kind of calms the soul a little bit.”
But he encourages more people to get involved.
“It’s not just a Phi Beta Sigma project,” Anderson said. “This can become an entire city project, an entire county project, whoever wants to come out and volunteer.”
MetroSTL.com staff contributed to this report.