Bulletin Board Archive

Topic: Buried Truth:Up at the airport, Slave Cemetery is threatened

  1. Nov 21, 2007 08:10pm by NRG - livin the art that is life ! www.64111clinic.com fam www.nrginmotion.com massage www.myspace.com/nrginmotion world community Location: havenhouse KCK/ 64111 Clinic 4 Life
    Buried Truth Up at the airport, under what's slated to be a private racetrack, no one's resting in peace. By Nadia Pflaum Published: November 15, 2007 It's been light for only an hour, but the Watkins Brothers Memorial Chapel is open for business. In the back of the Cleaver II Boulevard complex, two new coffins, still shrink-wrapped in plastic, stand on rolling platforms in a concrete hallway. Later today, they will contain two of the community's recently deceased. For 98 years — four generations — this family-owned funeral home has buried the city's African-American dead. This morning, though, Warren Watkins Jr., vice president, embalmer and funeral director, has business concerning people who have been dead much longer. Michael Forester Olin Miller and Shirley Kimsey hold Kimsey’s cemetery map. Michael Forester Descendents of Platte County pioneers gather in the lobby of the Watkins Brothers funeral home. Michael Forester History detectives Warren Watkins, Jimmy Johnson and Olin Miller (left to right) Michael Forester Katharine Mace, whose maternal grandmother was born a slave, will celebrate her 105th birthday this month. Michael Forester Ernestine Mace, Katharine’s daughter.Watkins walks out the garage doors and unlocks a black Cadillac limousine. A regal-looking woman in an African-patterned dress follows, settling into the back as Watkins gets in the driver's seat, chauffeur-style. Soon, they're zooming out of the city, past the exit ramp for Kansas City International Airport, past the undulating hills where red-tinged trees grow in strips between fields, toward the Platte County Courthouse. They're rushing to pick up Lillie Jackson, a woman in her 80s, in time for a 9 a.m. hearing. There, a judge will determine whether Watkins and an archaeologist are allowed to dig on the airport's land for what they think is concealed by tangles of underbrush and a few heavy red stones: the remains of the slaves who built Platte County. The soil around Kansas City's airport is similar to that in Virginia. Settlers from that part of the country came to Platte County in the 1800s, bringing their slaves with them. They nicknamed the area "Little Dixie" and planted crops of tobacco and hemp. The backbreaking work of tending the soil and cleaning the equipment was done mostly by slaves. Watkins' grandmother, who was born in Parkville, remembered that the names Tolson and Hughes — the names of their white slave owners — figured early in the family's genealogy. "Parkville was freedom," Watkins explains as he turns the limo off the highway to a residential neighborhood of one-story houses spread among woody stands of trees. If slaves could escape to Parkville, they could make it to Kansas — the free state. "The underground railroad started there, in Quindaro," Watkins says. "That's where they were hiding them. One real cold winter, you could walk across the frozen river, and if you could get to Parkville, you were good." The regal woman in the backseat, Timberlyn Smith, speaks up. She's along for the ride after some friends in her book group read a newspaper article about the Platte County hearing and told her that she should attend. Smith is an environmental consultant and a biology instructor at Park University. "My white friends don't see, you know. You have to kind of educate them," she says over the noise of the road. "They say, 'You all need to get over it [slavery]. It's in the past. It's history. There's no problems now.' There is a discord between the races that we tend to try to glaze over because it's easier." Watkins says, "We need healing. No more denying. Once you admit you have a problem, then you start dealing with it. Once we find one [grave], it just opens it up, and we'll keep looking till we find them all. For the first time, these people will be treated like human beings." Watkins pulls up to a white-shingled house on a concrete foundation with a little white Ford parked outside. A stooped woman steps out with her cane, turns to lock her wrought-iron door and greets Watkins, whom she calls "Butch." With his help, Lillie Jackson crawls into the rearmost section of the limo and smiles out the window on the way to the courthouse. Smith asks her what she thinks about their morning's activities. "I don't know," Jackson replies slowly. "I got up this morning, and I said, I don't know what to think. I'm just going to be solid and ask God what is the right thing to do." Watkins parks in front of the Platte County Courthouse, the centerpiece of Platte City's Main Street. Kansas raiders burned down the original courthouse, along with much of the town, in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. It was rebuilt and in 1933 was the site of the trial and conviction of Blanche Barrow, who ran with bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Watkins, Smith and Jackson file past uniformed guards, through metal detectors and into the courtroom, where the first hearing on the docket is that of a young blond woman, newly divorced, who wants her name changed. The attorneys for Kansas City's Aviation Department and Robert Shaw, the attorney representing the unknown people buried on a tract of airport property, wait for their turn in front of Circuit Court Judge Abe Shafer. Also waiting are half a dozen concerned citizens like Smith. None of this would be happening if it weren't for luxury sports cars. A businessman and auto enthusiast named Rick Watkins — no relation to Warren Watkins and the funeral-home family — and his partners in a company called FastTrack Group LLC plan to build a private motor-sports country club on a 300-acre chunk of city-owned property near the airport. It would be a playground for Porsche and Ferrari owners who long to push their speedometers into the red. Construction is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2008 for a 2009 opening. Plans for the KCI Motorsports Park — naming rights are for sale — show manicured lawns surrounding two immaculate road courses that could be merged into one 3.75-mile circuit. Ameni­ties, according to the track's Web site: a separate go-kart track, an exclusive clubhouse with views of the racing, a cafeteria and a pro shop. Flyover property near KCI seems perfect for the site, especially after planning officials from FastTrack's first choice in Miami County, Kansas, rejected the project in 2005 because of noise concerns. It would be a playground for Porsche and Ferrari owners. The lowest price for a membership is $15,000 a year, preconstruction, for a motorcyclist. (The cost of a membership will go up after the track is built.) A single go-kart driver pays $35,000, which doesn't include access for his or her family. A better-heeled member who wishes to test the limits of his machine can pay $85,000 preconstruction or $100,000 postconstruction for a "founding membership." Rick Watkins has not responded to The Pitch's repeated requests for an interview, but, according to the Web site, work on the track "was moved back one year to allow the Aviation Department time to resolve a lawsuit unrelated to this project." That lawsuit is related to the project, however, because if it isn't resolved, FastTrack can't break ground. Standing in its way are four marked pioneer cemeteries on the acreage. The city of Kansas City, Missouri, filed suit in Platte County Court on February 22, seeking permission to remove all of the remains from these cemeteries and reinter them in a centrally located fifth cemetery not in the path of development. The real holdup is the unmarked slave cemetery. Warren Watkins, Jackson and others are sure that it's on that same 300 acres. Shafer appointed Shaw to represent these unknown dead, and today, at the Platte County Courthouse, Shaw is asking Shafer's permission to go digging for them. Lowell Gard, an attorney for the city, steps up to his lectern and complains to Shafer that the city already hired an archaeologist, Craig Sturdevant, who drove a backhoe into one of the areas thought to be the slave cemetery, dug and found nothing, at a cost of $5,000. Shaw wants any new excavation to be done quickly and wisely, "so we don't spend another several months just prospecting." Gard adds that he has doubts about dowsing. Sometimes called "witching" or "divining," the practice involves walking over an area with a metal or wood rod held parallel in each hand; when the rods cross, they supposedly indicate the presence of water, metal or other objects underground. Platte County cemetery sextons and amateur historians use the method to locate underground graves. "The scientific basis for it, I think, is nearly nil," Gard says. Shaw replies that Warren Watkins and others don't want to search the entire 300 acres, only a small, specific site identified through locals' stories, dowsing rods, and deliberately placed red rocks thought to mark the graves. The city won't spend a dime, Shaw explains, because there is a volunteer archaeologist willing to do the work for free. Shafer grants Shaw's motion to let an archaeologist check out the site, provided that the work is completed before December 10, the next scheduled court date in the cemetery matter. When the hearing ends, the benches empty and a small group convenes in the courthouse hallway. Warren Watkins explains the court proceedings to Jackson, who couldn't hear. "They want to move it, but after so many years, I wonder if they know what they're doing," Jackson says. Jackson and her 104-year-old aunt, Katharine Mace, remember Mace's great-grandmother, who was born into slavery and was buried somewhere in Platte City. She was missing a leg but could still ride a horse. "She sat in a rocking chair, and she was good, as far as her mind was concerned, but she couldn't walk so well because they'd mistreated her," Jackson says. Standing just outside the courtroom doors is a gray-haired woman with a stick-straight back and a rolled-up cemetery map clenched under one arm. Unlike the city's maps, Shirley Kimsey's includes a tiny square marked "Slave Cemetery." Kimsey says representatives of the State Historical Society of Missouri told her that she knows more about Platte County's dead than anyone in their office. People who visit the courthouse for historical information are directed to Kimsey's clothing shop, called Shirley's Fashion Center, across the street from the courthouse. Near the dressing rooms, she keeps a microfiche machine with articles dating back to 1871. Platte County planners asked Kimsey to use her dowsing rods to determine the placement of unmarked graves before a cell-phone tower was erected on land near a cemetery. "I think they're full of bull," Kimsey says of the city's attorneys. "Cemeteries all over the United States use witching rods." Kimsey would prefer that none of the graves on city land be disturbed. She's not against progress, but she doesn't trust the city to care properly for the graves that stand in the way of development. "I don't care what color, what race or anything else they are," Kimsey says. "Leave my dead people alone." It's hard to imagine early pioneers resting in peace on airport land. The intermittent roar of jet engines is sometimes so loud, you can't hear your own footsteps crackling over sheared acres of cornstalks and brush. Kimsey has traipsed over this property and many other parcels, documenting 218 of Platte County's 220 cemeteries. Her interest began when she looked up the genealogy of her family and learned that her great-grandfather came to Platte County from Virginia, riding shotgun on a wagon train when he was 18 years old. He registered for 80 acres to farm and rode back to Virginia on horseback to fetch the rest of his family. She married into the Kimsey family. One of her late husband's relatives, Benjamin Kimsey, was a Platte County farmer who acquired the land in 1843 and owned four slaves, according to old census data. Another relative, Wade Hampton Kimsey, worked for a monument company and placed many of the tombstones in the Platte County Cemetery. Starting in the 1970s, Shirley Kimsey tended to the graves of these Kimseys, and perhaps 20 others, at least twice a year. The cemetery was deep into the fields, so the farmer who owned the land let Kimsey jump on the back of his tractor, and he took her there himself. Kansas City acquired the acreage in the 1980s in order to build up the area surrounding KCI. The city leased the land to farmers while waiting for development to catch up to it. By 1990, a different farmer leased the property, and Kimsey says she noticed that earth-moving equipment had been creeping closer to the plots. She contacted the Aviation Department and asked the person in charge of the city-owned farmland to make sure the cemetery was protected. In May 1992, some distant relatives of Kimsey's husband came to visit and asked for a tour of the Kimsey cemetery. "Well, we get down there, and — wait a minute, am I on the wrong hill?" Kimsey recalls. "And so I looked in both directions to see whether I'm in the wrong place, and, well, I'm not. Finally, I see this one tree has been left, and little Nancy's tombstone is lying against this tree. All the rest of the tombstones are gone, and all the rest of the trees that were around there are gone ... well, I will guarantee you that I came unglued." The next year, an archaeologist named Jimmy Johnson came to Kimsey's shop. He'd been researching landholding archives in the courthouse when a clerk suggested that he cross the street and seek her help. Johnson told her that his great-grandfather, who'd taken the name George Washington, was a slave in Platte County during the 1840s and 1850s. He said he learned through stories told by his grandmother that when Washington was a year old, he was given to farmer Jesse Miller and his wife, Margaret Jones-Miller, as a wedding gift from the bride's father. Washington's master, Jesse Miller, was a Southern sympathizer in the years leading up to the Civil War. In April 1855, Miller took part in a raid on a newspaper in Parkville called the Luminary, the Boston-born publisher of which, George S. Park, printed editorials arguing that slavery was bad for business and that Kansas should join the Union as a free state. According to W.M. Paxton's Annals of Platte County, Missouri (a history of the families that settled in Platte County in the 1800s — local historians call it "the Bible"), Jesse Miller and a crowd of others stormed the Luminary offices, scattered the press's type up and down Main Street and threw Park's press into the Missouri River. In the winter of 1862, with the Civil War under way, Platte County's slaves were escaping into Kansas, and the now-grown Washington was among them. He ran from the Miller hemp farm, crossed the frozen Missouri River and joined the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment to fight for the Union. He survived the battles and, after the war, married another ex-slave and used the money he'd earned as a soldier to buy land in the Wakarusa valley outside Lawrence. He raised a family there and died in 1931. Johnson told Kimsey that he was planning to complete an archaeological study of the Millers' farmhouse, and he wished to meet the descendent of his great-grandfather's master, Gordon Miller. Kimsey knew Gordon Miller. He was a retired insurance executive with his own company. The office was just down Main from Kimsey's shop. Kimsey was nervous about telling Miller the news. Old sentiments persist in some parts of Platte County. "It used to be that if you even mentioned a black person around Gordon, he'd take your head off," she says. But Miller surprised Kimsey. She says he told her, "'All my life, I've been told how I'm supposed to feel about colored people. But I woke up one morning and I thought, Gordon, what has a colored man ever done to you? Nothing.'" He agreed to meet Johnson. Johnson says his friends call him Indiana Johnson because of his style; he wears a fedora, drives a black Jaguar and speaks precisely, with swagger. In the introduction to his report on the Miller plantation, Johnson wrote of meeting Miller, "It was an emotional experience ... and a tremendous amount of recollection took place. After a few hours of conversation, we all became very good friends." They talked on the phone every day. Johnson says he and Gordon were as much like family as any two unrelated people could be. "We were supposed to collaborate on a book until he cut grass one afternoon, sat to rest under the shade of a tree and never got up." Miller died of a heart attack. In 1998, KCI officials gave Johnson permission to dig on the Miller plantation. The Missouri Department of Natu­ral Resources' Historic Preservation Program supplied funding for the project. Johnson dedicated the work to the memory of his friend. A handful of Boy Scouts helped him unearth artifacts. Among the items recovered from the Miller root cellar was a handmade iron bolt that could have been used to tie up horses — or slaves. According to Johnson's report, after Washington escaped, Jesse Miller chained his remaining slaves in the cellar at night in order to avoid losing any more. After the war, Miller tried through the federal courts to recover $500 compensation for his runaway; it's not known whether he collected. Now, nearly 10 years after Johnson's work at the Miller plantation, he has returned to excavate the area that Kimsey is sure is the slave cemetery. She says she knows because old-timers who were raised in the area told her about it. Kimsey recalls one elderly man whom people called "Red." She once argued with him over a Platte City proposal to move the courthouse. One day he came to her shop and said, "Shirley, I know we're not always in agreement, but there's one thing I know we will be in agreement on, and that is, down by where I live and where I was raised, there is a slave cemetery, and I don't ever want to see it destroyed." She says he showed her the place on her cemetery map and marked it with a pin. "There is something about that slave cemetery," Kimsey says. "People who lived in that area have a protective feeling about it. And I don't know why. Maybe they felt guilty about it. Not being proper headstones and such as that." Another person felt protective of the slave cemetery: Gordon Miller's son, Olin Miller, who took over the family insurance business on Main. Miller helps care for the Miller-Rixey Cemetery, one of the four cemeteries at the airport, and he learned how to dowse for graves from Kimsey. In May 2006, the Aviation Department notified descendents, including Olin Miller, of the city's intention to move four cemeteries. When Kimsey suggested that the racetrack might also threaten an unmarked slave cemetery, Miller pulled together a search party. Last February, Miller and his crew visited the Brightwell Cemetery, a tiny, fenced pioneer graveyard on airport property where several tall obelisks date back more than 100 years. "We went out and walked the fence line where they said the cemetery was located. We walked that fence line 400 yards ... at the bottom of the hill, we started finding red granite rocks. Three of us pulled out witching irons and walked the area, grave-dowsing, and began locating graves, and many of them had red-granite rocks at the head of the grave. We had what appeared to be three rows of graves, but the area was so overgrown with small trees and shrubs, even though it was the dead of winter, we had to walk deer paths and cattle paths to get through it." They thought they'd found about 80 graves. That got Olin Miller thinking. "How many descendents are there, of slaves in the area, who have no idea that they're related?" he says. "Back then, slaves were not schooled. They marked their names with an X if they had to sign. So other than having a few records of a slave owned as collateral or property, recorded in the 1840, 1850 or 1860 census, there's no clue, no church records, nothing to fall back on. Anything prior has to come from what grandparents told parents." He wanted to somehow notify African-Americans all over Kansas City, in case their families' oral traditions hinted at relatives buried in Platte County. Miller called the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center in Kansas City, a museum dedicated to the African-American experience and named for Warren Watkins' late uncle Bruce, who in the 1960s was the first black politician to serve on the City Council. A secretary connected Miller with Warren Watkins, who started looking for other descendents. One other thing was bothering Miller. "Not until the city filed their lawsuit did we really, formally learn exactly what they wanted to do," he says. "They never would specifically state why they wanted to move the cemeteries, except for the general welfare of the city of Kansas City. When we found out it was for a racetrack — we don't have a Porsche 560 we can go out here and race. We have a car we're content to buy gas for and wondering how to buy the next round of gas. Now these folks want to put a gentlemen's racetrack out here, which most of us will never have the opportunity to set foot on." Mark VanLoh, the director of the Aviation Department, says the racetrack is good for the city. "They're [FastTrack Group LLC] paying us rent," he tells The Pitch. "They took the land as is. It's a lot of rent, too — if I recall, it's approaching $300,000 a year. It's a pretty brilliant plan, I think, for raw land." After the court granted permission to dig for the slave cemetery, Johnson, Warren Watkins, Kimsey and Miller decided on a date: November 3. The weather was to be sunny and unseasonably warm. That Saturday morning, Johnson and Miller set out for the dig. The sign by the country road reads, "KCI Motorsports Park: Future Home." The undeveloped acres feel solemn in the morning sun. Not far from here, a farmer has taken care to plow around a stand of trees near the on-ramp for the airport. The trees conceal some bricks — all that's left of the Red Crown Tavern where Bonnie and Clyde hid out and eventually engaged in their infamous shootout with Platte County Sheriff Holt Coffey. Sometimes all that preserves history around here is a farmer with a long memory. The periods between airplane takeoffs and landings are peaceful. Every other step disturbs grasshoppers with black wings. Sparrows wheel overhead. The fall wind bends the shoulder-high grass, making it sound as if someone is walking through the field, just out of sight. For a few moments, it's possible to forget the prairie's loud neighbor; the only reminder of the nearby airport is the gray top of the control tower peeking above the blond-and-green hills. Johnson parks his black Jaguar just past the swinging metal cattle gate at the beginning of the country road leading to the Brightwell Cemetery. He jumps into Miller's rickety yellow truck full of equipment. A friend of Miller's is already ahead, waiting with a backhoe to sift through the first meter of dirt. As they bounce over paths of smashed grass, Johnson suspects they should be digging in a different location. Despite the insistence of oral tradition, Miller's and Kimsey's witching rods and the red stones lined in formation, he has doubts. A quarter-mile past the stone obelisks of the Brightwell Cemetery, they expect to find a handful of locals and some representatives from the airport. Instead, they find a cavalry. City trucks and cars line the path. Two attorneys for the city and six airport police officers are waiting. The officials are here to keep out anyone not directly involved with the excavation (including a Pitch reporter). Warren Watkins has already pulled up with a trailer of equipment hitched to the back of his glossy white 1977 El Camino (no funeral-home limousines today). Two more cars have followed him in, full of cameras and video equipment to document the scene. When Kimsey arrives, her car packed with coolers full of sandwiches, airport police officer John Martinez grills her about the coolers' contents. She offers to let him search them, but he relents and lets her through. Descendents arrive from each of the four threatened cemeteries. An airport police officer questions Bob Werline, a descendent of pioneers at Brightwell, about the person sitting in his truck. He says she is his wife — "Or, at least, she was when we left the house." Later, Johnson will say he was surprised by the heavy security. Then again, folks are always curious about his work. "Everyone wants to go on an archaeological site. Everyone wants to get a glimpse of the grinning skeletons. You might find a pot of gold. Tutankhamen's arm might be there. Everyone thinks it's a glorified adventure. But it's a lot of work." For this dirty job, Johnson wears a KU sweatshirt and, rather than his customary fedora, a backward-turned KU cap. Miller's pal Russ Statler operates the backhoe, taking bites out of the dirt and spitting them out slowly as Johnson watches, looking for remnants of a wooden box or pieces of hemp that might have covered the bodies of the dead when they were buried, or skeletal remains. Two hours pass, and three colors of clay sift through the backhoe. At noon, Johnson stops the machinery. The gathering of cops, lawyers and locals goes silent and waits for his word. If remains are found, Warren Watkins has plans to receive them at the funeral home and hold onto them for DNA sampling and eventual reburial. "Ladies and gentlemen," Johnson announces, "No one lives here. Let's cover it back up." "Just another foot," Miller suggests. But it's not to be. Later, Johnson will explain, "Two things happened: We either dug in the right cemetery in the wrong place, or the old oral tradition was incorrect and the coordinates were wrong. My gut feeling is, some farmer just took those stones and moved them out of the way so they could plow their crops." Not finding anything is good, too, Johnson says. He figures he has until December 10, the court date when Shafer will decide the fate of the cemeteries, to craft a legal brief asking permission to dig in another spot. He knows exactly where. Slaves in Little Dixie, he says, eked out a living close to the families that owned them (unlike in the South, where plantation operations were massive and used scores of slaves). Surely they would have been buried closer to their masters — not in the same cemetery but perhaps just outside the perimeter of places like Brightwell. "I know they're there," Johnson says. "The locals know it, too. Our first dig should have been at Brightwell. There were slaves buried all around there. It ain't over. You can't stop progress, but I don't want anyone buried under the racetrack." Miller's disappointment is palpable. "We tried our best to find it," he says. "I know there's a cemetery out there somewhere." But the search has discovered something else. "Whatever the differences have been in years past, all those things have been laid aside," Kimsey says. With his new friends, Warren Watkins will continue his hunt for the descendents of Platte County slaves. And so, as Miller puts it, "The North and the South are united in this effort of all free men to tell the story of the people who lived in this era of Missouri history."