Douglas County leaders, staff discuss responsibility for ‘abandoned’ cemeteries

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Douglas County staff John Nichols, center, and Jan Shupert-Arick, left, provide a report on county cemeteries to the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Commissioners Michelle Derusseau, foreground, and Nancy Thellman sit to the right.

In the rural part of Douglas County, between Lecompton and Lawrence, a cemetery sitting on private land is an important piece of the county’s African American history.

But staff told county leaders Wednesday that if the county wants to preserve that history, it will need to work through an issue that has arisen in several “abandoned” cemeteries in unincorporated areas: a lack of clear documentation of the property’s ownership.

The Lewis-Crowder Cemetery, located at 965 N. 1950 Road, is the only African American cemetery still intact in Douglas County, Heritage Coordinator Jan Shupert-Arick said during the Douglas County Commission’s work session. While the county would like to apply to add the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places, it needs documentation of a deed or title for the property, she said.

“We need a clear title for that to happen, to protect (the cemetery) in the future,” Shupert-Arick said.

But County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the commission that the county does not have clear documentation for that cemetery, making it one of several cemeteries that the county staff has identified as a “cemetery of concern.”

During the work session, Real Estate Clerk John Nichols and Shupert-Arick provided a report to the commissioners that touched on several of these “abandoned” cemeteries. In many cases, the exact locations and owners of the cemeteries are unknown, Nichols said.

The report also brought up the issue of who is responsible for caring for abandoned cemeteries. Nichols said there are state laws that appear to conflict with one another — one suggesting the county government is responsible for them and another suggesting that townships are responsible.

According to the county’s legal counsel, Plinsky said, the county government can take responsibility of the cemeteries if it so chooses, but it is not required to. If the county doesn’t take responsibility for the cemeteries, “it falls to the township,” she said.

“That’s something that hasn’t traditionally been done around here,” she said. “We haven’t been active with linking up abandoned cemeteries with townships to clarify some of that.”

Commission Chair Michelle Derusseau thanked county staff for bringing the issues to the commission’s attention. She said she wants to spend more time reviewing the information before providing any specific directions to staff.

“I’m really concerned about the (cemeteries) we are losing or that we have already lost,” she said.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said she also appreciated that county staff had begun looking into how the county can protect “sacred” places.

“At the most basic level, it’s us trying to keep faith with folks who buried loved ones generations ago and in that moment thought that always would be a sacred place,” she said of the county’s work on the issue. “I really appreciate this work and I hope we can help you to continue it.”

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