North Olmsted students determined to get marker for unmarked African-American graves

North Olmsted middle school students Maya Elkhatib, Kameron Swanson and Rafei Alshakergi are among a group of students working to get a marker for unmarked African-American graves in Butternut Ridge Cemetery.

For most students summer school work is completing their reading list. But one group of North Olmsted eighth-graders is determined to finish getting a proper marker for 12 African-American people buried unmarked graves in historic Butternut Ridge Cemetery.

The historic cemetery has graves dating back to the early 1820s and many of the first residents of what is now North Olmsted are buried there. It is located in the 1½-mile Butternut Historic District that includes Butternut Ridge, Columbia and Lorain roads.

That history is what drew students to look at the cemetery this year while doing work for a joint project to study North Olmsted in Claudia Bestor’s language arts class and Debbie Holecko’s American history class. The students found that there were 12 African-Americans buried in the cemetery without a headstone, marker or anything to show they were buried there.

“ ‘Outraged’ is not too strong a word,” said Holecko. “They were really upset by this.”

Students originally found the unmarked graves when they looked at material for the cemetery from the Olmsted Historical Society’s Frostville Museum and saw the information for the unmarked graves noted on one document.

“They kept looking into it and asking questions,” Bestor said.

Eighth grader Issa Najjar said the students weren’t content to just find the graves.

“They deserved some type of recognition,” he said. “They shouldn’t just be buried with nothing to show they were alive. We wanted something to show that they had lives.”

Maya Elkhatib said she’s enjoyed looking into North Olmsted’s history with the unexpected twist.

“I wanted to know more about the city because there’s a lot of good history here in the city,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting something like this when we started work in the class on North Olmsted’s history.”

Unfortunately, checking with the Historical Society, city of North Olmsted officials and other official sources didn’t get uncover any information about the people or their identities.

Student Kameron Swanson said being African-American makes him feel strongly about getting something done for the people in the graves.

“Family and knowing about people in your family is important,” Kameron said. “I’ve looked into some of my family history too at home. I’d want to know where my family members are.”

Kameron’s mother, Ronnette Rahmon, wasn’t surprised by his interest.

“Kameron’s very family-oriented,” Rahmon said. “It would bother him that family might not know where to find them. He’s also big for wanting to find out what’s going on. He asks questions and tries to get answers to things.”

Another student, Rafel Alshakergi, said the students tried looking at different ways of honoring the people even if they don’t know their identities.

“We wanted to get something good for them,” she said. “We wanted to find a way to let people know they were there.”

When the group decided upon getting some type of marker, they contacted North Olmsted Mayor Kevin Kennedy about it.

“We thought he could help us get more information about what to do,” said Anthony Bailey.

Kennedy came and spoke to the students about their work. He told them about working through the North Olmsted Historical Landmarks Commission and the Municipal Planning Commission to get the proper permission for putting up a marker at the gravesite.

“It’s pretty impressive what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re determined to get something done for those people buried there.”

Kennedy encouraged the students to focus on how to get the marker and what to say on it. He said he would help them get through the process. He said he also would work with them on finding ways to pay for a marker.

“There are grants and other programs that might help something of a historical nature like this,” he said. “Doing something like this is not a fast process, but it can be done.”

Rafel said she and the other students are working on getting the wording for the marker completed by the end of the school year. Then they will continue to work on getting the marker up this summer.

“It’s important that people know they are there,” she said. “They’re a part of the city too.”

Contact this reporter at assoceditor@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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