Higher ground

Photo by Jennifer Colten, WPC.Section 10 [271.11], 1991 inkjet print, © and courtesy of the artist.

The Sheldon Art Galleries presents “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery, Its People and Place,” an unprecedented multimedia exhibition, March 3 – August 26, in both the Bernoudy Gallery of Architecture and the Gallery of Photography. An opening reception is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Friday, March 3 from and the galleries will be open until 9 p.m. for First Fridays in Grand Center. T

Conceived by the photographer Jennifer Colten, “Higher Ground: Honoring Washington Park Cemetery, Its People and Place” includes 50 color photographs, some large-scale, made by Colten over 20 years; video and oral histories by artist Denise Ward-Brown to be shown on three monitors throughout the exhibition; historical land documentation; narrative text panels; and an art installation and animated film by community activist and artist Dail Chambers, which together will provide both a poetic and didactic overview of the history and issues surrounding this predominantly African-American cemetery.

The exhibition takes its title inspiration from Stevie Wonder’s 1973 song “Higher Ground,” which expresses resilience and perseverance. The three artists each contribute an aspect of the exhibition that will enable the subject to be presented both from artistic and historical perspectives, underscoring the humanity of the subject and shedding light on an important but neglected aspect of St. Louis’ African-American history.

Washington Park Cemetery, located near Lambert St. Louis International Airport in Berkeley, was established in 1920 as a burial ground for African Americans at a time when rigid segregation was common practice. For nearly 70 years, it was the largest black cemetery in the region, the final resting place for many prominent African Americans, including John Feugh who was assistant to Henry Shaw; Oscar Minor Waring, the first African-American principal of Sumner High School (and any Saint Louis public high school); and Dr. Miles Davis Sr., dentist and father to the musician Miles Davis.

Like many African-American cemeteries across the country, Washington Park has both a celebrated and a troubled past. In its almost 100-year history, the grounds of the cemetery went from elegant and manicured to disturbed and attenuated when major construction projects like the building of Highway 70 in 1955, and the airport expansion and the extension of the MetroLink light rail system in the 1990s invaded the once-bucolic landscape. The story is further complicated by neglect and mismanagement by past owners of the cemetery. These unplanned changes to the original cemetery landscape reveal the complicated tangle of social injustice, racial politics, imbalance of power and dismal neglect that constitute the cemetery’s long and tragic history.

Alongside the exhibition, Colten, in collaboration with the Washington University Olin Library Special Collections, will develop a resource website for the exhibit. A fully-illustrated exhibition catalogue with essays by landscape architect Azzurra Cox and architectural historian and preservationist Michael R. Allen, and contributions by Colten, Ward-Brown and Chambers will also be available.

For the exhibit, the Sheldon Art Galleries is asking for loans of ephemera and photographs related to the cemetery, including cemetery sales brochures, maps or other related items. Also planned is a “memory wall.” Organizers of the exhibit are inviting people with loved ones interred there to submit their photographs to be included on the memory wall. Photos can be emailed to, mailed to or brought by appointment to The Sheldon. Contact Paula Lincoln at plincoln@thesheldon.org to make arrangements. All original loaned items will be returned to the owners upon completion of the exhibit.

The Sheldon Art Galleries are open Tuesdays, Noon – 8 p.m.; Wednesdays - Fridays, Noon – 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and one hour prior to Sheldon performances and during intermission. Admission is free. For more information on exhibitions, visit the galleries’ website at TheSheldon.org.

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