Students Volunteer To Clean Up Neglected Cemetery For Black Veterans On Memorial Day

A group of eighth-grade students cleaned veterans' gravestones in a mostly abandoned cemetery once used by prominent black Kansas City-area residents in an effort to honor them before Memorial Day.

The students from Academie Lafayette worked in cool, wet weather recently to spruce up the Highland Cemetery, a segregated black cemetery that opened in 1909 in unincorporated Jackson County. The students planted flags and scrubbed gravestones with toothbrushes to expose names and dates that hadn't been seen in decades.

Several prominent black residents, such as jazz great Bennie Moten; Lafayette Tillman, one of Kansas City's first black police officers; funeral home founder Theron B. Watkins and The Call newspaper founder Chester A. Franklin are buried there. When segregation ended, black families went elsewhere, and the cemetery fell into disrepair, with damaged tombstones, dead tree limbs, tall weeds and dumped furniture and trash, The Kansas City Star reported.

The students worked on tombstones of veterans.

"They haven't been honored the way they should be, and I like doing this for them and their families," said Lily Linebach-Dehart, an eighth-grader at the French immersion K-8 charter school. "No one was able to find their names, to know who they were and what they did."

When she was done, it was clearly visible that John W. Lucas from Texas served with the 10th Cavalry and died March 8, 1932.

Before the trip, science teacher Muriel Desbleds wrote to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City to discuss the students' project.

"They liked the idea so they sent the letter on to Washington, D.C," Desbleds said Wednesday. "They sent us a box of flags."

The Land Trust of Jackson County acquired Highland in 2010 because of a tax foreclosure judgment.

Students first went the cemetery in March with lawnmowers and weed trimmers, and have used their work at the graveyard to research science, history, sociology and health topics.

"The grass was so high then you could barely see some of their heads out there," said Pablo Sanders, a school employee.

By the time they returned Wednesday, hired workers and volunteers had mowed, trimmed and picked up limbs and trash.

"We started and the community pitched in," said Jessica McDowell, an English teacher who helped coordinate the trip.

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