Relatives come from across nation to pay respects at black cemetery

In a once-forgotten cemetery, surrounded by family, both living and dead, 91-year-old Leon Lewis spoke of his heritage.

“This is the starting place of my ancestors,” he said. “This is where they came out of slavery. It’s important for the children to see and know this.”

Lewis, the oldest surviving member of the Lewis-Logan family of Lakeview, traveled from his home in Denver to address the group of about 35 relatives who gathered at the Lakeview cemetery Friday. Buried in the all-black cemetery, on a hill east of Lecompton, were about 30 adults and about 20 infants.

Lewis said Thomas Crowder donated the cemetery to Lewis’ great-grandfather, a former slave, in 1879, and it was used as a burial site for African Americans from the Douglas County area until about 1940. Lewis said he thought there was no other place for the blacks of the area to bury their dead at that time because cemeteries were segregated.

Lois Thompson, of Baltimore, organized the trip to the cemetery as a way for family members to connect with their heritage.

“It may have been a journey, but the good thing is it brought you to your history,” she said addressing family members, who traveled from 12 different states. They toured under the cedar trees looking for the resting places of uncles or grandparents.

Children played among the gravestones. To them, the cemetery was a place to be explored. To Lewis, the cemetery was much more. It was a place to be close to lost relatives, a place where he had shared picnics and celebrated life.

“I remember the good food in the cemetery,” he said pointing to some of the children in the audience. “When I was about your age, my job was to stand over the food with a big tree limb and swat away the flies.”

In those days, the cemetery was a tall patch of grass surrounded by fields. Now it lies on a heavily wooded area a half mile from the closest driveway.

After the 1940s, the cemetery fell into disuse. As the years passed, it was mostly forgotten. Cattle grazed there, and brush grew between the stones. It wasn’t until 1998, with the help of the Lecompton Historical Society and the Douglas County Genealogy Society, that the cemetery was rediscovered and cleared.

Iona Spencer, who helped restore the cemetery, was present for the ceremony. She said she determined the cemetery’s location by talking to relatives of her granddaughter-in-law.

There was only one problem. The previous property owner would not allow anyone to enter. So Spencer climbed through the brush and over the barbed wire fence.

“I was worried we were going to get shot,” she said.

With a change of ownership, access to the cemetery became easier. Randy Cheek, who owns land next to the cemetery, mows it to keep the weeds down.

Spencer also worked to identify those buried in the cemetery. Frances Lewis, who lived in Lawrence at the time, had saved the records of the Lakeview church when it flooded. Using the records, the two were able to piece together a list of those buried there.

Such efforts did not go unnoticed, and family members were eager to thank Spencer. After concluding the ceremony by singing “Amazing Grace,” Lewis offered the group some parting words.

“The purpose of this is for young kids to ask questions now,” he said. “We didn’t ask enough questions when we were young.”

— Staff intern Adam Strunk can be reached at 864-7146.