By Shana Siren Kempton
Once forgotten, forsaken, and overtaken by weeds, grass, and neglect – vandalism unchecked – the final resting place of thousands along with their honor is being reclaimed. Their plot now bears a name – their name – and along with it, a chance for their story to be revived, their legacy to survive.
Established in 1909, Highland Cemetery was one of three cemeteries along Blue Ridge Boulevard established for African Americans in this area. After legal segregation ended in 1964, internment at this cemetery continued to decline. Without an endowment in place for this once privately owned cemetery, it succumbed to neglect and financial distress, decomposing above and below. It didn’t take long for weather and neglect to nearly obliterate the memory of so many.
A 2014 newspaper article about the dismal state of this cemetery piqued the interest of some teachers at Académie Lafayette, a French Immersion public charter school in Kansas City. Middle school science teacher, Muriel Desbleds, spearheaded the proposal to beautify and resurrect an overgrown section of the cemetery through a community service project with her students.
Eight years into their project, “Bringing Daylight to a Name,” they have rescued or resumed over 70 headstones. They have brought over 70 “names to light” and dignity to the dead. Everything is hands-on for the students. “It’s like archaeology to them – they’re probing, cleaning headstones, excavating, and moving dirt away,” explains Desbleds. The students apply science skills by building levers and studying chemical and biological erosion.
“The last time we went this year, we found a new one!” says seventh grader, Anasten Schaefer, of a recent headstone discovery in Block 9. “They were completely underground and covered in dirt and grass. I feel like I can bring a person that passed away quite a while ago and remember them.”
Remembering veterans is important to Desbleds who comes from a family of veterans which includes her grandfather, father, and brother. While the Highland Cemetery is most notable as the final resting place for some famous Kansas Citians including jazz musician Bennie Moten, Desbleds focuses on honoring the headstones of those who served their country. Students place American flags on every veteran’s headstone each Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
The grassroots efforts of a teacher and her students have created a substantial change in eight years. In partnership with the county, the cemetery grass gets mowed and more dignity is shown to the dead. They continue their work to clean, catalogue, unearth, and commemorate the lives of the almost forgotten. There is more work to do.
“The students have the opportunity to make a change – not to move mountains but just little piles of dirt,” says Desbleds. “I figure if it only helps one person, we have accomplished it.”