Students place flags at neglected African American cemetery

Students from Academie Lafayette have clean up and placed flags at neglected African American Highland Cemetery.

Students from Academie Lafayette have clean up and placed flags at neglected African American Highland Cemetery.

By Joe Lambe

In what could be the start of a long-term relationship, charter school eighth graders used toothbrushes on Wednesday to scrub tombstones in an African-American graveyard.

The Académie Lafayette students also placed small flags on graves at Highland Cemetery, in unincorporated Jackson County off Blue Ridge Boulevard.

Last fall, students started their effort to clean up what had been a cemetery during segregation. It is likely to continue with other students and classes, their teacher said.

It started with an article in the Kansas City Star about how the cemetery was an overgrown dumping ground with no one to maintain it.student-cleaning-grave-2

The graveyard of prominent African-Americans and some who had once been slaves was seized for back taxes by the Jackson County Land Trust in 2010.

The county is not in the business of maintaining graveyards, but the cemetery that opened in 1909 had no money for maintenance, and no one wanted to buy it.

Last fall, English Teacher Jessica McDowell called that article to the attention of her 8th graders who were studying the book A Raisin in the Sun.

The gates to Highland Cemetery.

The gates to Highland Cemetery.

“They learn something like this,” McDowell said Wednesday, “and it’s kind of like whoa – that happens, no way, and they’re going to do something about it.”

Mobilization began. In March, the entire eighth grade – more than 60 students of the school at 6903 Oak St. – went to start clean up.

They hauled couches and trash off grave markers and fought waist-high weeds.
It was a small start, but not really.

Jackson County crews later joined in, clearing masses of weeds, brush and trash.

Then Hannah Harms, the student council secretary, wrote to the Department of Veterans Affairs asking for the flags and got them. She carefully scrubbed headstones on Wednesday.

There had been so much trash at the start, she said, “you couldn’t even see where the headstones were in some places.”

Bennie Moton's grave at Highland Cemetery.

Bennie Moton’s grave at Highland Cemetery.

Now the stone for jazz great Bennie Moten shines. Others buried there include Chester A. Franklin, who in 1919 founded the Kansas City Call, a leading African-American newspaper.

And there is Lafayette Tillman, the city’s first and at one time only black policeman.

McDowell, the English teacher, said future classes will continue to help care for the cemetery and possibly study the lives and times of people buried there.

Some of those had been slaves, she also noted, and society owes them at least something.

“At a bare minimum,” she said, “we can mow their lawn.”

One Comment

  1. Ms Harris says:

    I would like to locate the burial site of a love one who was layed to rest in highland cemetary in 1970. I don’t have the plot number. after speaking with Ms. Mary at Watkins memorial I am told she only has records from 1900 -1950.

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