To many, Father Dickson Cemetery at 845 Sappington Road in Crestwood offers an open spot along Grant's Trail. Headstones are the only signs of human history.
Webster Groves native Karen McCall Mozee sees more than passing beauty in the old cemetery. For her and her husband, Sylvester, Father Dickson is a living sign of the people who shaped the past.
Mozee's paternal ancestors are buried in plots around the grounds. The family lived in the Webster area for four generations or more. The cemetery opened in 1903, serving African Americans (cemeteries were segregated until recent decades).
"We're here because they were," she said. "We can't just ignore them because they're gone. We must show them the respect they earned throughout their lives."
Toward that end — showing respect — Mozee and others on the board of Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery are gearing up for spring, when the call goes out for clean-up help and more. As vice president on the cemetery board, Mozee readily rallies the needed forces to spruce up the beloved resting place of some 12,000 souls.
Starting April 10 and then every third Saturday through the growing season, from 10 a.m. to noon, volunteers will deal with nature's heavy hand: trim trees and bushes, pull weeds, tidy weather-beaten areas and more. Life doesn't give cemeteries a break, Mozee said with a smile.
In the past, Ursuline Academy students aided the clean-up cause. The Boy Scouts, Reliable Life Insurance nearby, friends, families and other groups got their graces by giving their all in the cemetery, Mozee said. Come one and all to the Father Dickson season opener, she laughed. Volunteers should call the Friends of the Cemetery at 822-8221.
A Facebook page, Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery, also alerts those interested about upcoming initiatives.
If those headstones could speak, cemetery goers would hear tragic tales, stories of suffering and prejudice, part and parcel of the African-American past. Yet, those stones would herald the heroes and heroines too, black women and men who paved glorious paths.
Mozee points out Father Dickson himself, whose full name — Moses Dickson — captured well his courage.
Living from 1824 until 1901, he was buried in the cemetery after spending a life aiding abolition and the education needs of freed slaves. Along with founding the Knights of Liberty in 1846, demanding slavery's end, he served the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church as a minister.
Dickson organized the Knights and Ladies of Tabor, an African-American self-help group.
Finally, he served as president of a relief board supporting black migrants to Kansas in the Exodus Movement of 1879-80.
Notables Buried At Father Dickson Cemetery
Other stones, too, signal esteemed African Americans:
• James Milton Turner, a former slave in St. Louis County and secretly educated intellectual (learning for blacks was outlawed). A prominent politician, he set up schools in cooperation with the State Department of Education. He co-founded Lincoln University in Jefferson City for the advanced learning needs of his people.
• Madame C.J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire. Walker earned her wealth as a pioneer in the hair-growing and cosmetic industry.
• John Vashon, namesake of Vashon High School in St. Louis City.
• Henry Lewis, barber to Augustus Busch Sr., patriarch of the iconic beer brewing family.
Then there are Mozee's family members, including her paternal great-grandparents, Charles and Cornelia St. James, and Charles St. James' mother, Harriet McKinney, among others.
As a high schooler at Ursuline Academy in Oakland, Mozee was stunned to learn that she and her best friend — going back to grade school days at St. Mary Magdalen School in Brentwood — had a strange link at Father Dickson Cemetery. Their ancestors were buried back-to-back, Mozee said.
Prejudices & Progress
Mozee has witnessed progress for minorities in her lifetime and now sees herself as simply an "American," without identifying herself by minority status. Yet, she admits the years leading up to the institution of the Friends of Father Dickson Cemetery in the late 1980s were not easy for her as a minority.
As a girl, she took it in stride that she could not accompany friends around her grade school to the movie cinema in Brentwood because segregation prevented it. Later, when she dated her now husband, Sylvester, she taught him side routes to use in getting home to the Central West End. She knew, like other blacks, that the police might harass him if he drove along main routes in surrounding municipalities, she said.
"Harassment was a sad fact of life for African Americans in the past," she said.
Karen and Sylvester Mozee raised two sons, Kyron and Kasey. The Mozees have two grandchildren by their son Kasey. Sadly, the years at a city Catholic grade school where Kyron and Kasey attended had its share of prejudice, seen at sports activities and elsewhere, Karen Mozee said.
A devoted member of St. Alphonsus "Rock" Church on Grand Avenue, Mozee and her husband finally found a faith home touting diversity from early on, she said. At the recent Martin Luther King gathering sponsored by Webster-Rock Hill Ministries, Mozee admitted in a talk to participants that prejudice is complex these days.
Reading an essay about put-downs written by a dark-skinned Asian girl, Mozee saw echoes of the African-American plight in the girl's words.
"Once you get to know people, you realize they're not much different than you," she said.
Extending that thought to her forebearers, Mozee brings the long-dead to life as she points out the progress at Father Dickson Cemetery.
"A part of me is here with all of them," she said.