Monday, May 30, 2011

Using Cemeteries to Learn Local History

Find-A-Grave to Discover African American History
Memorial Day encouraged cemetery hopping.  Adjacent to a beautiful, modern, well tended and decorated cemetery on the hill in Kansas City, Kansas, there's a less cared for weedy spacious cemetery sloping toward a ravine.  Many headstones had toppled over into the dandelions being choked by another weed variety.  Yet, I couldn't help but wonder who was buried in the Westlawn Cemetery.  My car, seemingly on its own, turned into the "less than" welcoming gates.  (Well actually I told my husband to turn).  But, even the entrance wept of the echoing struggle of the plots of loved ones. 

Westlawn Cemetery, Kansas City, Kansas
Many elderly were walking in search of tombstones, but what I quickly noticed was that, at that time, every single person was African American.  Now, I can't say this is a complete African American cemetery, but I saw nothing that indicated otherwise.

The Westlawn Cemetery haunted me, so once I reached my trusty computer, I quickly researched using Find A Grave.  As I had suspected, the Westlawn Cemetery is the last resting place (maybe the only resting place) of ancestors who had a struggling past.  But there were a few noticeables that left me with researchable questions:
1) This was far west (and south) of the early African American Kansas City community. Why were they buried here, so far from the community? 
2) There were an extreme amount of children who died in the 1920's and a lot of plots in that timeframe. Perhaps the heyday of that cemetery, or was there an epidemic at the time?
3) Another large percentage of burials in the 1950's. A struggling time for African Americans may give rise to this once prestigious cemetery (based on the headstones) popularity. Is this cemetery telling me something about the social class of Kansas City?
4) There were several recent burials (as late as 2005 - Vera Jane Patterson). Although for many obvious reasons, the family of Patterson may have interred their love one at Westlawn, but why in a ground-shifting sloping area where the life struggles continue in fighting dandelions, and headstone topplings?
Find A Grave gave 448 interments; 2 famous persons.  What is considered famous at any given time, gives the genealogical researcher a lot of information on the social history:

Brown, Ada b. May 1, 1890  d. March 31, 1950
Most famous for her appearance in Stormy Weather, Ada Brown was a Blues Singer. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, her early career was spent on stage in musical theaters and vaudeville. In 1926, she made her first recording "Evil Mama Blues" with band leader Bennie Moten. Her other recordings included, "111 Natural Blues", "Break O'Day Blues", "That Ain't Right" and "Crazy 'Bout My Lollypop". She was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America in 1936, performed on Broadway in the 1930s and appeared in the 1943 film, "Story Weather". (Bio by: John "J-Cat" Griffith). 

This bio is a scant overview of her contributions. Be sure to read about her at Google Books, Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African AmericanNational Biography, pg. 74-75.

Scott, James S.  b. 1886  d. 1938
Musician, Composer. Born in Neosho, Newton County, Mo.  Known as the “Little Professor,” he was second only to his contemporary and friend Scott Joplin. Born the second child of former slaves, in Neosho, Missouri, he composed such works like the "Hilarity Rag," "Frog Legs Rag," and "Kansas City Rag". After the popularity of rag gave way to jazz, he was employed as music director of a cinema chain located in and around the Jazz district of Kansas City until the advent of talkies made music during the feature obsolete.  He gave piano lessons and continued to write music throughout his life but could no longer secure a publisher. He died in Kansas City in 1938.  (Bio by: G.B.O

Each has a story to be told.  And although my ancestors do not rest among the 448 in Westlawn Cemetery it would be great to have a bit on each.  Who are these people? What did they do? How did they pass the day?  And where is the Westlawn Cemetery groundskeeper?

Kathleen Brandt


  1. That is a good question. There probably isn't any groundskeeper. I think i will go look it up.

  2. I love this idea - and am interested in anything you find out that could answer some of these questions.

  3. Hi Kathleen, I am from St Louis, MO. Once my sister and I went to visit our father's grave in Calvary Cemetery. We were very curious about the back portion of the cemetery because it has a lot of old graves. We especially liked looking to see if there were any pictures of the deceased on the headstones. In one section, we kept encountering the graves of numerous people, particularly children, who died in 1918. We thought there must have been some epidemic. When you posted the Encyclopedia of Genealogy: Epidemics, I remembered that day and looked up the year 1918. Sure enough, influenza was worldwide and did effect St. Louis. You might find this link interesting as it mentions Kansas City...

  4. Thanks all for writing. @Kristin and @Greta.
    I am meeting with one of the Historical Groups to see if I can find out more.

    @Tara,Thanks for being a reader and thanks for the link. I'm going to add it inside the blog, for readers who skip comments!

  5. You're pleasure!