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Tireless volunteers bring light to hidden Black history at reverent Woodland Cemetery

"It's a forgotten part of the Forgotten Triangle."
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Posted at 6:34 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 19:05:31-05

CLEVELAND — Tucked away and spread across 60 acres of land flanking Cleveland's Forgotten Triangle, the city-owned Woodland Cemetery is a place deeply rooted in Black history that largely has been forgotten by it. A group of volunteers with an unbridled passion for the hallowed, historic land have donated their time and talent to uncover what's hiding in plain sight.

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Named after the trees that tower above it, Woodland Cemetery, located at 6901 Woodland Ave., opened in 1853 and was considered a source of pride for the city, although the cemetery wasn't technically within the city's borders until 14 years later. Woodland, which pre-dates the more well-known Lakeview Cemetery further east, was the primary public cemetery during the city's most prosperous years. Veterans of the War of 1812 and Civil War are buried at Woodland. It is also the final resting place for two Ohio governors, a lieutenant governor, and the namesake of Bratenahl. Equally as important, the people who played vital roles in the days of the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction and Jim Crow have also contributed their stories to Woodland's list of notable residents.

Many of those stories would not be told today if not for the Woodland Cemetery Foundation.

"There are about 85,000 residents in Woodland Cemetery and I've always said that every single one of them has a story to tell," said Michelle Day, the president of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation. "Our job is to find those stories and to tell them."

As irony would have it, Day despised history class when she was a kid. Now, it is an infatuation and Woodland is the reason why.

"My grandparents, my great grandparents, my great great grandparents are buried here. I had never been here. I figured why not come out here and see the cemetery," Day said. "I just fell in love with it. The history -- and the amount of history here -- is not talked about in the City of Cleveland at all."

In 2007, after a small group of people coalesced around Day's attempts to bring attention and better maintenance at Woodland, the foundation was formally incorporated. In addition to raising money for the repair and cleaning of important markers and monuments, the foundation has spent countless hours researching the lives and contributions of the residents buried there.

"We started doing research with the Underground Railroad and how many people within this cemetery, within these gates of this 60 acres, that people just don't talk about," Day said. "They have a lot to do with Cleveland's history."

Dorothy Salem, the educational outreach coordinator for the foundation and a retired educator, said many people develop a passion for the cemetery after connecting with the story of a single resident.

"Research one person and you will begin to paint a picture of the context of what was going on and it's in their own backyard," Salem said. "That's what was so important to me."

Those stories span centuries and tell the tale of how our nation, which was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, finally began to live up to its word.

George Vosburgh, for instance, was a fixture of the old Union Depot. He was a friend of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Known by several presidents, Vosburgh would shake the hands of domestic and international dignitaries upon their arrival to Cleveland. His most important contribution, however, was the assistance he provided to runaway slaves.

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Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson is also buried at Woodland. In the fall of 1860, she was able to escape by way of the Underground Railroad. In 1861, slave owner William Goshorn arrived in Cleveland to reclaim Lucy. Despite overwhelming support from Cleveland's anti-slavery and black communities, Lucy was returned to Goshorn under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She was one of the last runaway slaves to be returned to their owner under that law.

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"History is more than facts. It's alive. It's living," said Pat Haller, the secretary for the foundation. "You can discover many new things and you can apply them to the present."

A white obelisk on the western perimeter of Woodland bears the name of John Brown, who at the time of his death was the wealthiest Black man in Cleveland. Known as 'John the Barber' because he shared the same name as white abolitionist John Brown, John the Barber risked life, liberty and his fortune regularly by hiding escaped slaves in his barbershop and his home.

"It's right across the street from all of that new housing," Salem said. "I find that ironic that he stands there tall and visible and no one, no one, no one knows about John Brown."

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The list of notable Black figures from the 19th and early 20th centuries that are buried at Woodland is extensive. Joseph Briggs, the man who invented home mail delivery for the United States Postal Service, is buried at Woodland. Numerous black soldiers that fought for the North are also scattered across the cemetery, many of whom lay in unmarked graves.

That is one of the many ironies about the hallowed ground: a place rooted in history has largely been forgotten by it.

"It's kind of like a forgotten part of the Forgotten Triangle," said Paul Siedel, the head of research for the Woodland Cemetery Foundation. "History is not a detached story about something that happened. It's a prologue to what is going on today. There are people who were very prominent in their time, but as time moves on they began to be forgotten."

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The foundation has made it its mission to ensure those figures aren't forgotten. Although the process is time-consuming, the foundation, which relies on volunteers, continues to systematically research and verify the identities of notable figures at the cemetery, especially those involved in the Underground Railroad and civil rights movement. The foundation also actively fund raises and seeks grant money to provide headstones to those that lay in unmarked graves, like Lucy Bagby Johnson.

"Their stories need to be told, and how do you get them memorialized in an empty grave? We have tried over the years to try to replace some of the headstones here and there when we can, but it's all based on grants," Day said. "The cemetery is vast in knowledge. It's up to us to turn up that history. Within the area and within Cleveland... people need to understand that history and how the people made that history."