Missouri residents file lawsuit calling for removal of billboards from historic African American cemetery

Posted at 10:29 AM, Apr 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-24 10:29:38-04

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO - A lawsuit has been filed by the descendants of two African-American women buried at a historic cemetery in north St. Louis County against the media company that erected three billboard columns among the graves.

Wanda Brandon's lawsuit calls the presence of the billboards in Washington Park Cemetery "offensive and disrespectful" to the many people buried there and their surviving families.

Brandon said she is disgusted by what has happened to the nearly 100-year-old cemetery, once the largest burial site for African Americans in the region, including her own family. Brandon's mother and grandmother are believed to be buried in overgrown sections of the cemetery, but she has not been able to locate them yet.

The cemetery has a long and painful history. The land changed ownership several times, sections of land were sold off, grave sites were moved, a mass grave was discovered and much of the remaining cemetery fell into neglect.

"If this was a white cemetery, this would've never happened," Brandon said.

More than 30 years ago, Drury Displays Inc., the plaintiff in Brandon's lawsuit, bought a stretch of the cemetery along Interstate 70 and put up three columns displaying six billboards. Brandon said she first reached out to the company with her concerns then.

"I was told directly, 'We bought the land fair and square, and it's ours to do whatever,'" she said.

Vince Miller, president of DDI Media declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. Instead, he returned the same statement the company has been sending out since this story went public:

"For more than three decades, we have had three billboards visible from Interstate 70 on property owned by DDI Media where Washington Park Cemetery is operated. We are not able to comment on the litigation, but those billboards have played an important role in the cemetery's ongoing operation for many years - with the full support and agreement of the cemetery owners and operators.  During that time, we have carefully maintained our property near the billboards.  As part of our commitment to take care of our property, we even extended the amount of property we maintain -- reaching several feet beyond where our billboards are located.

We have always worked to be a good partner, citizen, and neighbor - working in a respectful manner. We have and always will strongly support efforts to maintain the cemetery and honor the memories of those who are buried there."

Tuesday afternoon, the field below the billboards was freshly mowed, but headstones could be seen in swamps. Brandon said she felt anger looking at the neglect.

Brandon also pointed out headstones covered in what appeared to be the same color paint used to paint the billboard columns and countless broken headstones which she said happened when DDI Media was clearing brush in the cemetery last summer.

The cemetery is currently owned by Kevin Bailey. He is not named in the lawsuit and declined to comment on it.

None of the billboards displayed an advertisement Tuesday. Brandon said she contacted the advertisers about her concerns with the billboard placement.

"All advertisers had no idea that their billboard was located inside of a cemetery next to graves," Brandon said.

Brandon's lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction requiring DDI Media to remove the billboards and stop the desecration of the cemetery.

"The billboards must go, the cellphone tower must go, the cemetery must be cleared," she said.