Clay County volunteers work to memorialize Black settlers, slaves in segregated cemeteries

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LIBERTY, Mo. — Jasper Kaiser didn’t quite understand what he was seeing at first.

“Thought it was pretty messed up, I know that,” he said.

The Liberty middle school student was on a field trip to Fairview and New Hope cemeteries in the historic town. On one side of a road, clearly defined grave sites, some with majestic markers. On the other: grass, a few sinking or fallen gravestones and more grass.

It was a sight he took home to his mother.

“He came home from that field trip, just kind of concerned about that,” Jaclyn Kaiser remembered. “And there wasn’t a whole lot of information about it.”

So the family from California reached out to City Hall, wanting to know more. In turn, they learned an effort was already underway to help others in Clay County know more as well.

A.J. Byrd is part of that effort and welcomed the Kaiser family’s interest.

“We’re talking about people who worked hard, who helped build Liberty,” said Byrd of the souls buried in those overgrown plots of land.

The president of the Liberty African American Legacy has family who helped settle Clay County, some of them who were brought to the area enslaved.

“There was a Black hotel. There were Black restaurants. There Black convenience stores,” he added.

Life for theses African American pioneers was free but segregated. So, too, was death.

“So, we’re talking about lives segregated from cradle to grave,” Byrd said.

He and others are now raising money to try to end that segregation, at least symbolically.

These early settlers, Shelton Ponder said, “gave us so much. We can never pay them back. Whatever we’re doing is miniscule to the prices they paid, the opportunities they didn’t have.”

Ponder is also part of the Liberty African American Legacy Project, an effort to catalogue graves and build a memorial at Fairview Cemetery with the names of as many of those buried below the grass as possible. Like Byrd, he has relatives who were enslaved and buried here.

“Segregation was designed to hurt us,” Ponder said. “But we did not learn to be second class. We learned to be citizens of the world.

So far, with the city’s help obtaining ground-penetrating radar and painstaking records research, the volunteers have identified more than 750 graves. There may be more.

The group is also fundraising via GoFundMe, with a goal of $125,000. The organization has raised $31,500 in individual donations and another $35,500 in grants. That includes a $15,000 grant from UAW Local 249, and grants from the Hallmark Charitable Affairs Committee, the Liberty Arts Commission, and Missouri Humanities Council, among others.

The Legacy Project plans to break ground and begin work on the memorial in August, with a June 2022 completion date, in time for Liberty’s Bicentennial celebration.

As for what her son saw, Jaclyn was moved to become involved herself, assisting with marketing and photography.

“I was very proud of him for recognizing when something didn’t seem right,” she said.

Now the Liberty African American Legacy Memorial volunteers are hoping to finish by making it right and honoring the souls who came before them, and now, rest in peace.

In segregated cemeteries.

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