Multimedia Exhibition In St. Louis Explores Complex, Forsaken History Of Washington Park Cemetery

In 1990, photographer Jennifer Colten moved to St. Louis to begin teaching photography at Washington University, and in 1991 she began photographing the historic Washington Park Cemetery.

Colten, whose work has a strong focus on capturing urban landscapes undergoing transformation, frequently visited the cemetery over the next two years. She captured vivid, evocative images of what had once been the largest African-American cemetery in the St. Louis area: founded in 1920, the original cemetery’s 75 acres had been split by the construction of Interstate 70 in the late 1950s. Subsequent runway expansion of Lambert Airport and the construction of MetroLink further eroded the cemetery’s boundaries.

As a result, over 10,000 of those buried at Washington Park were disinterred and moved to other plots—and even other cemeteries— to make room for construction. The cemetery also fell into disrepair over the years, and the loss of records left many relatives of those buried unable to find the graves of their loved ones.

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Washington Park Cemetery, photograph by Jennifer Colten

Her photographs of the cemetery are part of a multi-media exhibition at the Sheldon Art Galleries called “Higher Ground,” which features 50 of her photographs. The exhibition also displays sculptural pieces and an animated film by artist Dail Chambers, accompanied by three documentary films from Denise Ward-Brown, an associate professor at Washington University.

“I was originally attracted by what it looked like, but quickly discovered it’s a place that feels very potent and has a deep sense of history,” stated Colten during an interview before the opening of the show. “After I took those photos in the early ’90s, I wanted to show them in St. Louis. I talked with a few people, but nothing came together.”

But the combination of Washington Park’s neglected natural beauty and its tragic upheaval continued to attract Colten. She began returning to the Cemetery in 2010 and took more photos over the next few years.

Dail Chambers Installation 1

Sculpture Installation by Dail Chambers

In her journey to show this body of work, a turning point came in 2013, when Colten reached out to Gwen Moore, curator of Urban Landscape and Community Identity with the Missouri Historical Society, after hearing Moore interviewed on radio.

“Gwen put me in touch with Dail Chambers, an artist who was also searching for the grave of her grandmother, Evelyn Haines, as well as two other relatives buried at the cemetery,” says Colten. “That’s when I realized the complexity of the story. It was much more than my photographs. It was a search for cultural heritage, and a literal search for Dail.”

Colten, Chambers and Ward-Brown began working on grant applications to fund an exhibition that would feature Colten’s photographs, Chambers’ sculptures and animated film, and Ward-Brown’s documentaries. After receiving grants in 2014 and 2015, Colten approached the Sheldon Art Galleries about hosting the exhibition, which opened on March 3.

Dail Chambers Installation 3-detail

Sculpture by Dail Chambers, detail

“Dail and I were traveling different paths, but we clearly were on a similar journey artistically,” Colten explains. “And Denise’s videos add such deep cultural context to the photos. In fact, I think my photos are the backdrop to the real story: the need to honor the people buried there and to recognize the injustice of what happened there.”

The exhibit runs through August 26, and will be highlighted by several special events. The three artists will present a gallery talk at 7:30pm April 7 at the Sheldon, and a panel discussion will take place at the Missouri History Museum from 6:30–8:30pm.

A gospel music concert is scheduled for June 13 at the Sheldon, and Chambers will present an artist workshop there on April 8. In addition, several cemetery cleanup days are being planned. Information will be available on the Sheldon’s website as details are finalized.

Cover Photo, Washington Park Cemetery by Jennifer Colten.

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