Interview: Honoring and Remembering the Black Founders of Clay County, MO

August 31, 2022
by Rodney Jackson, Internal Communications Manager at Rebuilding Together National

Just outside Kansas City sits Clay County, the fourth-smallest county in Missouri. In the county seat of Liberty, hiding in plain sight on six acres of land, are over 700 unmarked graves. The Liberty Legacy Memorial Committee contacted Rebuilding Together Kansas City to partner in creating a memorial space recognizing the African Americans that were buried in Fairview Cemetery without markers. Rebuilding Together Kansas City installed 14 bollards to create an area to honor and recognize those buried in mostly unmarked graves in the once segregated cemetery.

Hello Cecelia and Clay. Can you tell us a little about what you do and how the partnership began?  

Clay: Before I started Rebuilding Together Kansas City in 2001, I knew Cecelia well as a highly respected community leader who was well connected with the African American citizens in this area. I asked her to serve on our Advisory Council from the very beginning, and she has proved to be a fantastic resource in helping us to reach out to the African American residents who need our services. This is how our partnership began, but it has grown over the years to include her involvement with the Clay County African American Legacy group, which has helped people be more educated on the important role African Americans played in building Liberty and beyond. The historical perspective that this organization provides has been an instrumental part of several important diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in Clay County. 

Cecelia: My name is Dr. Cecelia Robinson. I'm a retired Professor Emeritus of William Jewell College, volunteer historian for Garrison School Cultural Center, the Liberty African American Legacy Memorial, and current Advisory Council member of Rebuilding Together Kansas City. I've known and worked with Clay as a resident and community volunteer for over twenty years. I contacted Clay seeking help from Rebuilding Together Kansas City for our 501c3 Garrison School Cultural Center capital improvement projects in 2003. Rebuilding Together Kansas City volunteers built a handicapped ramp for our building, provided landscaping work, provided interior and exterior clean-up days and provided major work for the St. Luke AME Church after the Tornado of 2003. Since then, we’ve continued our community partnership. 

Cecelia, what has the collaboration between the Clay County African American Legacy and Rebuilding Together Kansas City enabled you to accomplish? 

Cecelia: The 2022 collaboration between the Liberty African American Legacy Memorial and Rebuilding Together Kansas City, along with numerous partners, allowed us to save costs through in-kind volunteer labor in building the monument to honor the African Americans buried in unmarked graves. The collaboration helped residents in Liberty and the Greater Kansas City metroplex become aware of the many contributions made by African Americans of Liberty to help build the city. Rebuilding Together Kansas City volunteers and other volunteer groups worked together to complete a diversity project that encourages equity and recognition for individuals who were denied equality and justice for over 400 years. 

Clay, you and your Rebuilding Together Kansas City team are typically involved with home repairs and accessibility improvements. How'd you get involved with the Liberty African American Legacy Memorial?  

Clay: The leadership team that was organizing this memorial project at Fairview Cemetery contacted me to see if Rebuilding Together Kansas City would be willing to help cut down their costs by installing bollards. I discussed this idea with our board and staff, and we agreed to participate by doing these installations. We liked the idea of honoring those former Liberty residents who were buried there but did not have any markers. 

Clay, respectfully digging and inserting decorative bollards in a cemetery with unmarked graves seems challenging. Did you and your team face any obstacles installing the bollard posts?  

Clay: I honestly had envisioned us using our auger to dig out the holes like we often do for our ramps and decks, but it wasn't until later in the process that we found out that these bollards have a special concrete base that is square and requires much more digging. So, the actual digging and installation was much more involved than I thought I had committed to at the beginning, but our volunteers and staff worked hard to get it done nonetheless. 

Can you tell us a little about the unmarked graves at Fairview cemetery and how many are buried there?  

Cecelia: This segregated piece of land was given to African Americans so that they could bury the deceased. Over 760 African Americans were buried in the segregated sections of Fairview and New Hope cemeteries, mostly in unmarked graves.  

When did these people live in Liberty, and in what ways did they help to build Liberty?  

Cecelia: African Americans first came to Liberty in 1817 with Southern owners of the enslaved from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. These enslaved people and their descendants became the pioneers who founded the Black community that has been an integral part of Clay County for 200 years. Not only these pioneer African Americans, but also their descendants helped build the plantations, churches, schools, businesses, roads and bridges. 

Cecelia, what inspired the idea to add a memorial monument for these unmarked graves?  

Cecelia: African Americans had a significant role in building almost everything in Clay County. Despite racism, segregation and Jim Crow, many of these African Americans became business owners, Free Masons, teachers, preachers, veterans and community leaders. The descendants of these formerly enslaved people helped build Liberty and should be honored.  

Cecelia, the black stone monument looks beautiful. Who designed the black stone monument? 

Cecelia: Landscape Architect Stephen Rhodes of VIREO designed the memorial Plaza for the Legacy Memorial. The design consists of a brick donor area and walkway plaza lined with 14 bollards. Rebuilding Together Kansas City installed the bollards along the roadway lining the segregated section of Fairview Cemetery. This job required many hours of volunteer labor and the purchase of materials needed to complete the job. Rhodes’ design also includes two sitting benches and a 7,000 lb. black granite headstone with the names of all 760 individuals identified; eight panels: six are story panels featuring profiles of 24 African Americans who represent pioneer families, veterans, educators, business owners, domestics and antebellum residents of note. As one of the volunteer historian/ researchers for this project, I focused on researching and helping to write the profile panels. Two informational panels included at the entrance of the walkway plaza were researched and written by City Councilman and Project Co-Chair, Harold Phillips. The first panel focuses on the history of African American cemeteries and the second panel on the Black history of Liberty. The black granite memorial stone was shipped from India and inscribed and installed by Trip Johnson Monument Company. The plaza also consists of 18 story boulders with quotations, historical information and the names of everyday and extraordinary individuals of note buried in the segregated cemeteries. 

Are you pleased with the outcome? What does this special memorial mean to you, and what is the message it sends to the Liberty community? 

Cecelia: I am so proud of this memorial and its impact on our community. Visitors are touring the cemetery and reflecting on the souls of black folk who made a difference in Clay County. This legacy monument ensures hope for educating visitors and improving human relations for future generations.