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Liberty ‘reading park’ honors crossing guard who graced children’s lives

Artist Martha Aldridge of Clinton, Mo., takes a look at her work two days before the dedication of the China Slaughter Reading Park.
Artist Martha Aldridge of Clinton, Mo., takes a look at her work two days before the dedication of the China Slaughter Reading Park. Courtesy photo

He was named Lawrence Slaughter when he was born in 1913, but to decades of Liberty schoolchildren, he was known affectionately as “China” — the custodian and crossing guard at Franklin Elementary School.

“He loved each and every child he helped cross the street,” Theresa Byrd said. She was among those honoring Slaughter’s legacy at the dedication of the China Slaughter Reading Park April 26.

Byrd, a third-grader at Franklin in 1958, was one of those children. She knew Slaughter not only as crossing guard but also as her uncle. Her grandfather and Slaughter were brothers.

She spoke at the dedication about her uncle’s commitment to Franklin students and to books: “He read anything he could get his hands on.”

For 47 years, Slaughter worked for the Liberty School District. He retired from the district in 1984 and died in 1997.

Most of his years were spent at Franklin Elementary School, where he guided students safely across Mill Street before and after school.

The pocket park at the corner of Mill and Gallatin streets features a bronze, life-size statue of Slaughter in his role as a crossing guard with two students — a boy and a girl carrying lunch boxes and books.

The statue is a gift from the Liberty Arts Foundation to the school district.

Slaughter grew up in Liberty and returned after graduating from college in Indiana. He began his career with the school district as a custodian at Garrison School, the school black children attended before the district was integrated.

Slaughter’s service is important and the statue historic for another reason.

“This is the first sculpture in Clay County dedicated in honor of an African American,” said Cecelia Robinson, retired professor at William Jewell College and a member of the Clay County African American Legacy.

The park honors the role Slaughter played in the lives of Franklin grade-schoolers and provides a place where new generations can participate in Slaughter’s appreciation for the written word.

The park is designed to encourage readers of all ages to curl up on a bench, under a tree or at a spot on the low 30-foot-long wall that curves around a sidewalk near the statue.

As a fifth-grader at Franklin in 1949, Helen Mann of Kearney recalls Slaughter quoting Emerson and Shakespeare when he signed Mann’s autograph book. She remembers him encouraging students to be kind, truthful and respectful.

Slaughter’s commitment went beyond keeping the school clean and the children safe. He cared about the students as individuals.

He was often asked by teachers to counsel or comfort a child in crisis, Byrd said.

And he didn’t hesitate to report to parents if a child misbehaved.

“China came by the house to talk to my mother when I did something he didn’t think was appropriate,” recalled Jim Willoughby who attended Franklin from 1956 to 1962.

It was Slaughter’s long-standing friendship with James Willoughby and his wife, Sylvia, that made the China Slaughter Reading Park possible.

The Willoughbys donated the land — 4,250 square feet — to the school district with the understanding that it would be used in some way to honor their friend, China.

A plaque posted in the park tells the story of Slaughter’s life and legacy. The plaque describes how students would walk out of their way “to give themselves a chance to speak with China and have him tell them what fine persons they were and would become.”

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