Fraternity leads cleanup effort at Black Illinois cemetery
MILLSTADT, IL – The winding, narrow road to Booker T. Washington Cemetery off Illinois 163 between Millstadt and Cahokia Heights is threatening. It’s inundated with potholes and there are no signs of where it’s going. It’s mysterious.
The area is filled with overgrown weeds and there is trash in some places. But across the threatening road and rubble lie scattered tombstones that encompass a rich history. Booker T. Washington Cemetery was one of the few places where black Metro-East residents could bury loved ones.
Now a local brotherhood wants people to learn about the history of the cemetery by making the area more welcoming.
“A lot of people didn’t know this cemetery existed, so I just want to bring life to this cemetery, and hopefully the community will get involved,” said Ronald McClellan, a native of East St. Louis.
McClellan is a member of the Nu Gamma Sigma Alumni Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. As of last month, the Belleville-based chapter has been running a weekly cemetery clean-up under the direction of McClellan to make it more attractive to visitors and less hidden.
When the weather is nice, the Brotherhood and other volunteers mow the lawn and remove overgrown weeds every Saturday. On Fridays the Brotherhood marks the part of the cemetery where they will clean the next day.
McClellan said this year’s focus will be on the center section, while next year the focus will be on the outer edges of the cemetery.
“We’ll take short steps,” said McClellan. … ‘We mark the areas with either tape or paint where we will start and where we will stop. We usually just break this block into four sections, and the original plan was that each section would have a department head and when the volunteers came out they would work in that section. It was overwhelming and in the end everyone just started working and no one stayed in their department, but that was fine because we saw progress. ‘
McClellan found out about the state of the cemetery nearly 20 years ago while working for the Centerville Police Department. He now works as a detective for the East St. Louis Police Department.
“There’s a house on the property right next to the property and I spoke to the man there and he told me how it was kind of neglected,” McClellan said. “People came out there and did drugs, the homeless camped out there, and they just didn’t get any attention. It was kind of forgotten. ‘
Last fall, while doing burial details in the area, he decided to go back to the cemetery and found that he was still in a shabby state. So he brought the idea of the purge to his brothers. He felt like he had to do something.
“Some of the guys really didn’t get it until they got out there and physically saw those tombstones that were in those trees and the overgrown brush,” said McClellan, 49, “(They were) just inspired when we got out of there went and saw it, so we started with it. “
Booker T. Washington Cemetery was founded by RMC Green, an East St. Louis undertaker. From 1919 to about the early 1970s, more than 12,000 blacks from the East St. Louis, Alorton, and Centerville areas were interred there.
Judy Jennings, a St. Clair County Historical Society volunteer, has explored the cemetery since 2000 and wants more people to understand its deep history.
“There are a lot of stones,” Jennings said of the nearly 8-acre cemetery. “A lot of stones have been destroyed over the years, not by humanity, it’s more erosion. Over the years there have been floods and garbage has been dumped there. A lot of people don’t even know it’s there. ‘
That is why she welcomes the work of the Brotherhood.
“There have been a lot of groups trying to clean it up and it’s an overwhelming task. … I’ve never seen this group, “said Jennings.” They are very determined and very excited to clean this up and keep it clean. “
According to Jennings, the cemetery is full of veterans. Anthony Speed, St. Clair County’s first deputy sheriff, is also buried there. RMC Green is too. Jennings is currently investigating a person named Will Smith, who was born into slavery and buried in the cemetery.
“Historically, there is so much out there, and I’m just so happy that these people are doing this job as quickly as they do and (with) their determination because this is really going to turn this cemetery around,” Jennings said . “This will really help make this a lovely place again, and hopefully down the road as soon as we have time to mend some of the broken stones that some families may be able to visit. That is the plan. ‘
With Jennings’ help, the fraternity is hoping to have a website that will make it easy for people in the area to access the names of loved ones buried there. They also hope to make the cemetery a historic landmark for the state. However, this work starts with cleaning the area.
“It’s really very sad because when you are out there you see a headstone deep in a wooded brush area and I was thinking about someone being loved,” McClellan said of cleaning the cemetery. ‘It’s just extremely sad. That was a person. Whoever loved and cared for this person is not here anymore and it’s like they are forgotten. ‘
Carlos Glenn was born and raised in East St. Louis. He is also the president of the Nu Gamma Sigma Alumni Chapter. He vaguely knew that his aunts, uncles, and cousins were buried in Booker T. Washington Cemetery until his mother recently brought it to his attention. On his first visit to the cleanup, he was shocked by the condition of the cemetery.
“Before I went out there because I was there for the first time, I spoke to my mother because she said I had some relatives in the cemetery that I had never spoken to her about,” Glenn said , 52, said. “When I went out there and saw the weeds growing out and things like that, it was kind of daunting. I felt bad. ‘
But he is grateful that his chapter, which was chartered in 2002, can help make the cemetery less forgotten. It makes him proud of the story there, especially considering how it fits in with the mission of the Brotherhood. He’s thinking about being part of a black brotherhood whose history is rooted in segregation and cleaning up a black cemetery that exists because of segregation too.
Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc. was founded in 1914 at Howard University in Washington, DC. It is one of nine brotherhoods and sororities in black Greek letters, also known as the Divine Nine, that are part of the umbrella organization of The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC). The creation of NPHC organizations was in response to black students being denied access to white fraternities and sororities.
“Service is a mainstay of any Black Greek organization, but one of the other mainstays of the Black Greek organization is history,” said Glenn. “That’s the one aspect associated with a fraternity like Phi Beta Sigma or one of the other big Black Greek organizations that doesn’t exist.
“You need to know your history as an organizational member of the organization, but that history dates back to the early 1900s and you are learning to appreciate that history. We have recognized our history, tried to protect our history and make sure that history is not forgotten. In an indirect way, this mission that Ron helped initiate has drawn us back into this mission of historical preservation of a particular area. ‘
Henry Anderson, another member of the Nu Gamma Sigma Alumni Chapter, also buried family members in the cemetery. His step-grandmother, who died in 1954, is buried there, as is his father, who died a decade later. He couldn’t find her headstones. This is one of the reasons he says his brothers are inspired to keep cleaning up the area.
“Some of them buried relatives out there, and it’s kind of a discomfort … when you go into the actual cemetery and come in there and look and say what happened? Why was this allowed to happen? ‘Anderson, 71, said. “Well, we’re about to say what we can do as an organization, as a group of young, middle, old, black men, what can we do to make this effort? I think with the effort we make, the contact we have made, we are going to make a difference and that is one thing that calms the soul a bit. ‘
But he encourages more people to get involved.
“It’s not just a Phi Beta Sigma project,” said Anderson. “This can be a whole city project, a whole district project, whoever wants to come out and volunteer.”
Source: Belleville News-Democrat, https://bit.ly/3evJvcl