Herman Krueger established Greenwood Cemetery on January 19th, 1874, after resigning his position as superintendent of St. Peter’s Cemetery on Lucas and Hunt Road. Krueger clearly envisioned the need-and potential profitability-of a private black cemetery. Greenwood was the first commercial burial ground for area African Americans, and as such it evidenced the postwar trend toward segregation in all aspects of life-and death. In 1890, Krueger sold Greenwood to his son-in-law, Adolph Foelsch. The Foelsch family operated the cemetery until 1981. Adolph Foelsch, Jr. was president for many years; his brother William was the secretary-treasurer and another brother, William, was the sexton. Later the cemetery was managed by Oscar Foelsch, whose son, Theodore, managed it afterward. The Foelsches lived in the vicinity of the cemetery and worked cooperatively to maintain the grounds, digging graves by hand and horse drawn plow, with Clydesdale horses. The family manufactured concrete tombstones on the grounds beginning in the 1910s; in the 1950s, when they had ceased producing the large planters that had been the standard, they began offering flat stones with embedded stained glass in a variety of colors. Funerals were numerous through the ’40s and ’50s, according to Marlene Britt, Krueger’s great-great granddaughter, who grew up in the sexton’s house at the back of the cemetery. She recalled that caskets were brought to the front of the cemetery and taken to the grave site by horse and wagon, with the funeral procession following behind. Also, consistent with African American tradition, funerals were highly emotional events, sending-off parties at which mourners screamed, cried and sometimes jumped into the graves. On Memorial Day there were huge celebrations at Greenwood. The Foelsches sold concessions (sodas and sandwiches, and paint cans full of water). Britt, also remembered, some of the people interred at Greenwood were victims of violence: gunshot victims, and sometimes victims of unsolved murders.iii
In order to understand and define the community that utilized Greenwood Cemetery, it is important to know something about the historical background of African Americans in St. Louis. Before the Civil War, enslaved blacks in the city were mainly house slaves for aristocratic white families. They lived scattered throughout the better areas of St. Louis City. Most free blacks were clustered in slums to the north and south of the central business district, close to available work. Over one-third of the employed free black men worked at some kind of river-connected job or as porters. These were by and large menial, unskilled jobs. Free black women generally worked as domestic help. Before the Civil War, a small but prosperous black middle class was beginning to develop in the city. Despite restrictive state and city ordinances regulating black commerce, this black bourgeoisie owned and operated businesses that served other African Americans; some owned substantial real estate holdings.
From 1865 to 1890 the population of African Americans remained concentrated in the city’s central wards and in other pockets throughout the city. On the eve of the First World War, blacks lived in six distinct areas of St. Louis; Elleardsville (The Ville) was the largest. In some of these concentrations, population density averaged 82.46 people per acre (the citywide average was 12.4 people per acre). Between 1890 and Word War I, westward movement of whites, along with an expanding population and concomitant growth of business and industry, caused drastic changes in black neighborhoods as blacks moved into previously white areas. During the years of World War I, the Great Migration of blacks from the South, such as Mississippi, began and brought with it, an influx of African American culture. Many people that were a part of the 'Migration' were buried at Greenwood. The new black neighborhoods fell into disrepair as well-to-do whites moved away and allowed their property to decline before the black community could fully establish itself.
By the 1920s large numbers of blacks were concentrated on the central west end of the city, between Jefferson and Grand Avenues, as well as in other ghettoized areas. The occupational profile of black males in St. Louis was similar to that of black men in other northern cities, such as Chicago, as described by the 1910 census; many now worked at factory jobs and other menial industrial work, while black women continued to have very limited employment opportunities, still largely as household servants or laundresses. Most of black St. Louis lived at, and often slipped below, the poverty line. The superficial prosperity of the 1920s did, however, bring an increase in the city’s black middle class, and a corresponding increase in the influence of African American culture. These African Americans are the people who constitute the bulk of the estimated 50,000 people buried at Greenwood: a small number of middle-class citizens and a much greater percentage of the domestic servants and laborers who made up black St. Louis.
Clearly the African American population in St. Louis was entrenched in a situation of economic and educational poverty created by the legacy of slavery. A situation that would change little until the governmental programs of the New Deal of the 1930s, and, some thirty years later, the social changes provoked by the Civil Rights Movement. Discrimination and racism-excluded even the most skilled blacks from good jobs. African American cemeteries in St. Louis and elsewhere are also historically significant as both an illustration and an artifact of the Jim Crow era. Prior to the Civil War, slaves had been buried with the families who owned them, in cemetery grounds adjacent to the white family cemetery. This practice extended to urban cemeteries, where black slaves were buried with their white families.
Free blacks were generally buried in potters’ fields, city-owned cemeteries and Catholic cemeteries. After Emancipation these practices began to change as segregation of blacks and whites became customary at first and later enforced by law. With the development, in the late nineteenth century, of African American churches (primarily AME and Baptist), many African Americans in St. Louis were buried in church cemeteries. The migration of blacks from the South and the general growth of the St. Louis black community made the timing right for the establishment of commercial cemeteries for African Americans. Established in 1874, Greenwood Cemetery, was the first of these-possibly the first in the state of Missouri. In 1903, the Father Dixon Cemetery was established in south St. Louis County by the International Order of Twelve Knights and Daughters of Tabor; and in 1920, inspired by the success of other commercial black cemeteries, Andrew H. Watson established Washington Park Cemetery on Natural Bridge Rd. It was to become the largest and most popular African American cemeteries in St. Louis.
With desegregation increasing, the need for separate cemeteries eventually ended, as did the commercial viability of St Louis’ black privately owned cemeteries. By the 1980s, all three commercial black cemeteries in the city had been sold to new owners, who soon discovered that there were no perpetual-care funds to maintain the facilities. The only source of income was the sale of new plots-a source inadequate to the maintenance needs at Greenwood. The result was that the cemetery rapidly declined and became a dumping ground and target for vandals. Current reclamation and restoration efforts have so far made only small progress in returning the cemetery to its original condition.
Greenwood continued to be well maintained by the Foelsches into the late 1970s. In the 1980s, it was sold, and since then has experienced severe neglect, abuse and vandalism. Because it was not mowed and untended, much of the property reverted to overgrown fields and woods. The overgrowth has covered and damaged many grave markers, and is so dense that some sections of the cemetery are impenetrable except during the winter months. Roads have become rutted and have not been repaired; some have grown impassable by car. Area residents began to use the site as a dump, mounting it with household trash, discarded appliances, automobiles, furniture, tires, clothing and debris from construction projects. As recently as 2018, trash was still being dumped in the cemetery. In addition, vandals have broken and toppled numerous grave markers. The cemetery has also been subject to severe erosion. In some older sections, erosion has exposed drainage culverts and toppled or dislodged gravestones; other stones have been covered by washed-out soil. The collapse of some vaults and caskets has caused further erosion. Due to its disastrous condition, human bones have been uncovered and exposed at various points within the site. In more accessible parts, especially toward the front of the cemetery, the areas around some graves have been cleared and tended by family members. Although in many sections of the cemetery, particularly the older ones, markers are obscured, damaged or missing. Many granite blocks, slants and flush markers remain in the newer areas that are kept in good condition. There are also many remaining homemade concrete markers. Despite the deteriorating condition of Greenwood, burials continued into the 1990s. Notable are a number of graves that have been covered by white gravel, an African American burial custom imported from the South.
Knowledgeable informants speak of the black musicians, civil rights leaders and other key individuals associated with the development of black St. Louis who are said to be buried there. According to the oral tradition, one of the first burials at Greenwood was that of Abraham Lincoln’s personal aide. Unfortunately, the deteriorated condition of the cemetery and many of its stones, as well as incomplete burial records, make it difficult or impossible to verify much of this oral information. Approximately twenty percent of the burial records to 1906 are extant; these records confirm approximately 5,000 burials during the cemetery’s first twenty-eight years. No records have been located for the years 1906-1939, with the exception of the Missouri Death Index (1910-1967). With intense research, the years between 1940 to 1993, burial records are nearly complete. There are approximately over 50,000 people buried in the thirty two acre cemetery. The number is staggering, and reinforces the importance of the site as a resource waiting to yield a wealth of information about black St. Louis to historians, anthropologists and other students and scholars of African American history and culture.
In 1993 the cemetery was purchased by Solomon Rooks. Rooks banked on receiving the contract to re-inter bodies from Washington Park Cemetery when Lambert Field airport expanded onto what had been part of the cemetery grounds. However, Rooks did not win the contract, and was financially unable to maintain Greenwood. The decline of the property continued unchecked until 1999, when a local preservation organization, the Friends of Greenwood Cemetery Association, Inc., was established with the aim of saving and restoring the property. On March 1, 1999, the not-for-profit grass roots organization consisted of the descendant community and academic professionals, the Friends of Greenwood Cemetery, Inc., was established. The group’s goal was to restore and preserve the site for use as a historic park as well as an educational and tourism resource to celebrate St. Louis’s African American heritage. The Friends enlisted community support, coordinated volunteer labor and began to acquire donations and grants from such diverse groups and corporations as the Boy Scouts, employees of Southwestern Bell, Monsanto, Whitaker Foundation. On May 1, 2000, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon declared the cemetery “abandoned” under a new law. The corporations that owned it were dissolved, and the St. Louis County Court transferred ownership of the property to St. Louis County. The Missouri National Guard was then enlisted to help with an initial cleanup of the cemetery, removing cars, brush and other debris. Cleanup efforts have continued with the Guard’s support, until the cemetery’s ownership was transferred to the Friends of Greenwood Cemetery in May, 2002. While this transfer grants autonomy to the organization in its preservation efforts, it also places the burden of financing the endeavor entirely on this under-funded local organization.
In 2004, Greenwood Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a monument was erected in honor of Harriet Robinson Scott, Freedom Suit Plaintiff and wife of Dred Scott. The Friends of Greenwood was dissolved in 2016 and the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association (GCPA) was formed. The cemetery now has a 501C(3) tax status and is GCPA, a non-profit organization. Also in 2016, Greenwood was listed on St. Louis County's Historic Landmarks. Our goal is to bring the Cemetery to its former glory. The cemetery has proved to be a valuable teaching tool for students in the St. Louis County public schools as well as college and university students from University of Missouri-St. Louis and William Woods University, which have used the site to teach anthropology, history, mathematics, and other disciplines. Greenwood offers enormous promise as an educational and tourist resource. The compelling oral record regarding Greenwood leaves no doubt of its historic, cultural and social importance to St. Louis, and particularly St. Louis African Americans as a source of great pride.