Early Wednesday, a group of French-speaking eighth-graders used toothbrushes to clean moss off old tombstones of African-American military veterans.
Not something you see every day in Kansas City.
But there they were, 25 or so students from Academie Lafayette working to get Highland Cemetery, a segregated black cemetery from Kansas City’s early days, ready for Memorial Day. They planted flags on graves long forgotten in a cemetery long neglected.
Seems like such goodwill deserved blue sky and sunshine.
Aucune une telle chance. Uh, no such luck.
It was 52 degrees, breezy and spitting rain.
The kids didn’t care. After teachers and students gathered to discuss the game plan — speaking French, as usual — the kids sank knees in wet grass and hands in cold mud. They worked carefully with squirt bottles and two-for-a-dollar toothbrushes to expose names and dates that hadn’t been lit by sunshine in decades.
“They haven’t been honored the way they should be, and I like doing this for them and their families,” Lily Linebach-Dehart, an eighth-grader at the French immersion K-8 charter school, said as she dabbed an engraved name like she was cleaning a cut. “No one was able to find their names, to know who they were and what they did.”
When she was done with that stone, eyes could see that John W. Lucas from Texas served with the 10th Cavalry and he died March 8, 1932.
Lily stood with muddy hands and looked at the name.
“I like doing this,” she said.
Before the trip, science teacher Muriel Desbleds wrote to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City to tell them what the students wanted to do for Memorial Day.
“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 students at Academie Lafayette learned about Highland from a Kansas City Star article last year that told of the cemetery’s proud history and sad decline.
When it opened in 1909 on Blue Ridge Boulevard, north of 23rd Street in unincorporated Jackson County, Highland was billed as “devoted to the exclusive use of the Negro race.” It became the resting place for prominent African-American doctors, businessmen and schoolteachers.
But when segregation ended, families went elsewhere. Highland was left with a historical tale, but little money for perpetual care.
The Land Trust of Jackson County acquired Highland in 2010 because of a tax foreclosure judgment — back taxes.
Last fall, tombstones sat cockeyed, dead limbs lay about, weeds stood tall and people dumped trash in the brush.
The students at Academie Lafayette saw a cause. Instructors saw teaching moments.
Science — how do moss and lichen form and grow on concrete? History — who are these people buried out there? Sociology — what was life like in Kansas City back when horse-drawn hearses carried bodies clear out to Highland because they couldn’t be buried with white people? Health — why did so many babies die back then?
The kids researched and they learned. Then in March they broke out the lawnmowers and weed trimmers. On that trip, they uncovered stones long buried in the ground.
“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 came back Wednesday, hired workers had mowed, trimmed and picked up limbs and trash. Volunteer groups had also pitched in.
Highland Cemetery had risen from the mess.
“We started and the community pitched in,” said Jessica McDowell, an English teacher who helped coordinate the trip.
“Hey, the couches are gone,” said student Hannah Harms, referring to dumped furniture.
Michael Sweeney, collection librarian for the Black Archives of Mid-America, praised the Academie Lafayette students and the school.
“When you come visit the archives you will see many of the names you find here today on our walls,” he told them. “You are keeping memories alive.”
Jazz great Bennie Moten is buried there. So is Lafayette Tillman, one of Kansas City’s first black police officers. Others include funeral home founder Theron B. Watkins and The Call newspaper founder Chester A. Franklin.
But Wednesday was for the veterans.
Lily Linebach-Dehart and Desbleds literally dug deep in cold mud to unearth the stone for Robert Fitchue, a private first class with the 524 Engineers. Born Sept. 2, 1891, and died Sept. 27, 1944.
Liliana Reyes worked on the headstone of Ruben Yeager of Missouri. He served with the 806 Pioneer Infantry and died May 20, 1934.
Nearby, Kayla Civil cleaned the engraving for a name that appeared to be Chester A. Ramsey, a sergeant in the 92nd Division. He died Oct 23, 1929.
“You don’t know who they are until you do this,” Kayla said. “And nobody’s done this for a long time.”