Freshman year is a time to meet new people, but for students at Ursuline Academy, some of those introductions came by the way of an important part of St. Louis history.
Through a service project as part of their freshman orientation, students learned about James Milton Turner; Susan Paul Vashon and her son, John B. Vashon; and Henry “Steamboat” Lewis.
All of them are buried at the Father Dickson Cemetery in Crestwood, where Ursuline students spent much of the day Aug. 14 clearing tree limbs and branches that had fallen from a recent storm, and spreading mulch, among other activities. Founded in 1903, it is one of the oldest public cemeteries for African Americans in the St. Louis area, and named after Rev. Moses Dickson, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and prominent abolitionist.
Located on South Sappington Road next door to the Thomas Sappington House, the 13-acre cemetery includes approximately 12,000 burials, according to Ernest Jordan, president of Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, a volunteer-led organization that maintains the grounds.
The service opportunity was part of the school’s annual Viaggio Days, in which freshmen are oriented to the all-girls private Catholic High School in Oakland. (Viaggio means “journey” in Italian — in honor of St. Angela Merici, Italian saint and foundress of the Order of St. Ursula.)
“We wanted to provide them with an opportunity to do service in a socially distant way,” said Ursuline campus minister Nikki Weston, adding that the service addresses burying the dead, one of the Corporal Works of Mercy. “When you have a location like Father Dickson that is so rich in history within walking distance, we want our students to know about this opportunity and hopefully to make it part of their experience at Ursuline that they continue to do throughout their four years.”
Weston said it’s also an opportunity for students to learn a part of the history of the African American community in St. Louis. Students were encouraged to take photos of gravestones and research the person online. “If you just do service but you’re not taking the time to educate yourself and to learn how to advocate for others, then it’s just hard labor.”
Helen Creamer got to know her fellow Ursuline freshmen as they cleaned up a spot toward the back of the cemetery. She took a photo of the gravestone of C.C. Lum Caldwell and planned to do some research later. It was her first time visiting the cemetery. “It was kind of peaceful, to clean up the grave sites,” she said. “It really made me feel like I accomplished something.”
Ernest Jordan of the nonprofit Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery has relatives buried there, including a grandmother and great-grandmother. The 73-year-old said more volunteers are desperately needed to help with the upkeep of the grounds.
“Right now cutting the grass it’s myself and two other gentlemen,” he said. Surveying the Ursuline volunteers, Jordan said, “I appreciate all the help from everybody. If I hadn’t had this (help), I couldn’t do this. I consider myself the glue of the organization. When we first started off, it was like a forest, overgrown — it’s taken all this time to clean it up. I would hate to see all this effort go backward.”
Ursuline senior Lea Verslues, who helped to lead the freshmen, said she drives past the cemetery every day on her way to school, but never knew about its history until now.
Verslues said she hopes the service project will help freshmen learn more about Usruline’s motto of “Serviam.”
“We’re all about serving the community, and coming in as a freshmen, hopefully they can start to experience the good feelings that come from serving as an Ursuline community,” she said.