The Illinois Department of Transportation will hold a public hearing this summer on plans to replace the Illinois 111 Bridge over Interstate 64, including a proposal to relocate human remains from an Old Black Cemetery and the Old Cemetery. of the poor in St. Clair County.
Thousands of graves were supposed to be moved in the late 1960s to make way for interstate construction, but some bones were apparently left behind, IDOT officials say.
“Our proposal is to move features that may still be there to another acceptable location, which would likely be another cemetery,” said Cindy Stafford, location studies engineer for District 8, based in Collinsville.
Stafford and Joe Galloy, director of IDOT’s cultural resources unit, point out that the $28.5 million project is still in Phase 1 and that the agency will not finalize plans until area residents will not have had the opportunity to provide further comments.
The Illinois 111 interchange, also known as the Kingshighway, is in Washington Park. A local resident told IDOT about the cemetery in 2019 after another public hearing. Archaeologists then found human bones, but only examined a small part of the interchange.
“Our intention at this time was not to disturb any of the graves, but simply to assess whether the removal that had been done in the past was complete or not,” Galloy said.
Since then, IDOT has continued planning for the project and determined it could not build the new viaduct, which officials say is important for safety reasons, without disturbing the remains, according to Stafford.
“One of the things we looked at is whether or not we could come up with an interchange design that would avoid the location of old cemeteries,” she said earlier this month. “And what we’ve found is that there really isn’t an acceptable design for security and traffic operations that would avoid those areas.”
Even if the areas could be avoided during construction, officials believe they would likely be affected by drainage improvements, utility works or routine road maintenance in the future.
Phase I of the project includes public participation, data collection, technical and environmental analyzes and the land acquisition process. It was supposed to take two years, according to the project description.
IDOT will announce the date of the public hearing in the coming weeks.
Too low for trucks
The Illinois 111-Interstate 64 Overpass project was originally included in IDOT’s 2019-2024 Proposed Freeway Improvement Program, also known as the Multi-Year Plan. It is now part of the 2022-2027 plan.
IDOT wants to replace the Illinois 111 Bridge because it was built in 1973 and remains largely in its original condition except for bridge patching and other repairs, according to the project description.
Officials also point to its 14-foot-1-inch clearance above the freeway, which is less than the current standard minimum of 16 feet.
“Accident history at this location indicates that the clearance distance between Interstate 64 and the structure that carries IL Route 111 over Interstate 64 is not sufficient,” the description reads. “…This structure was struck by tractor-trailers and equipment transported by trucks traveling on Interstate 64.”
Former Washington Park resident Scott Rose was unable to attend the 2019 public hearing, but he later filled out a feedback form, telling IDOT officials that he had read an article about a black cemetery nearby.
The IDOT then sent archaeologists to the site and conducted historical research on the old Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery and the old St. Clair County Cemetery, which locals called “Potter’s Field”.
Rose, 59, who now lives in Fairview Heights, still leads security at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, which sits next to the northeast section of the Illinois 111-Interstate 64 interchange. He recently met with officials from IDOT who gave him an update on the project.
“They said if I hadn’t sent that note and the cemetery hadn’t been brought up when they started, they would have been screwed millions of dollars,” he said Thursday.
“They would have done all the engineering, outsourced the work, bought all the hardware, innovated, found a body and had to stop and do it all again.”
Any relocation of the remains would be guided by Illinois’ Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act, according to Galloy.
Passed in 1989, the law is designed to protect the safety and sanctity of unregistered and unmarked graves and to discourage desecration of human remains and vandalism to headstones.
Rose said IDOT representatives told her they planned to only move the remains to areas affected by construction, so it’s inevitable that some will remain buried in the wider surroundings.
“There’s not much they can do at this point,” he said. “…There must be some kind of memorial to recognize the people who are still buried there, and they say that’s what they’re going to do.”
25 acres of graves
Douglas-Lawnridge Cemetery, also known as Lawn Ridge Cemetery, was a common burial site for black residents of East St. Louis, according to a 1968 article in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Douglas-Lawnridge adjoined the old St. Clair County Cemetery for a total of about 25 acres, but it was largely abandoned after World War II and many headstones have disappeared.
In 1968, the state hired Keeley Bros. Construction Co. in East St. Louis to move 3,000 graves to nearby Booker T. Washington Cemetery and Sunset Memorial Gardens, which are historically black cemeteries, paving the way for construction of Interstate 64 and its Illinois 111. exchange.
“When we were going through the death records, we found a handful of people who were on the list of people being transferred to Booker T. (of Douglas-Lawnridge),” said Judy Jennings, a specialist in the area’s black cemeteries. “I only have proof of one. It’s written on stone.
In the 1960s, authorities attempted to trace the descendants of those buried at Douglas-Lawnridge by holding public meetings and placing advertisements in newspapers, radio and television, the BND reported.
The story mentioned the difficulty Keeley faced in finding unmarked graves.
“‘Lost’ graves are found by digging a series of parallel trenches four feet apart with a small digger,” he said. “This machine gives the operator a certain ‘feel’ in his digging. The backhoe is closely followed by a team of workers with shovels and shovels for scrutiny.
“After 40 years of burial, not much remains except a thin gray coffin outline and sometimes a rusty nail, tooth or bone fragment. A few balls of this material are placed in a human-sized wooden box painted gray, sealed and transported for reburial.
The process companies would have followed in the 1960s to locate and move unmarked graves was very different from how it is handled today, partly because of advances and partly because of laws, according to Galloy.
“Professional archaeologists have a trained eye for any disturbance in the ground, and we can easily see things that might have been missed in the past,” he said.
Phase II of the IDOT Bridge Replacement includes plans, specifications and estimates for contracting construction, as well as negotiations with landowners for any necessary rights of way or easements. This phase is expected to last two years, according to the project description.
Phase III is construction. This should take two to three years.
This story was originally published July 5, 2022 5:00 a.m.