Construction on the new Upper Arlington High School was set to start in April, but concerns over an African-American cemetery buried beneath the campus have the school district confronting the community's past.
Upper Arlington School District will study whether remains may still lie beneath the high school’s campus. Superintendent Paul Imhoff said they are working with an archaeologist and plan to conduct a scan of the area to identify any graves that may not have already been cleared.
Construction of the first high school revealed the cemetery in 1955. The district moved remains they found, but it built a parking lot and possibly part of the building over the area.
Upper Arlington resident Mike Renz has encouraged the city and school district to further explore the cemetery, and he said construction of the current high school above the cemetery illustrated the community’s segregation at that time.
“You don’t handle human remains in such a casual way,” Renz said. “You don’t build buildings or parking lots over graves no matter who they belong to.”
Now, the district wants to address its previous mistakes and respectfully manage the cemetery as it tears down the old high school, Imhoff said.
“This is not a proud part of our history, but it is a part of our history, and we feel strongly that we are not going to hide from that. We’re not going to pretend like it didn’t happen,” Imhoff said. “We’re still in the process of determining what (the right thing) is, but we’re certainly dedicated to doing the right thing and honoring these people whose final resting place was on that site.”
In addition to searching for more remains, Imhoff says he expects some kind of memorial to be placed on the cemetery’s site.
Pleasant Litchford, a freed slave who came to Columbus from Virginia in 1828, established the cemetery in the 1800s. As a blacksmith, he started buying land in what is now Upper Arlington, and founded the cemetery for his family and other African-Americans who were excluded from white cemeteries.
“(Upper Arlington) was supposed to be white, rich and exclusive, and yet essentially one of its earliest settlers was black and lived this incredible life of bootstrapping himself up into society,” Renz said.
The new building will be located at the opposite end of the campus from the cemetery. Because maps show the cemetery is not under the site of the new building, Imhoff says they won’t scan that area for graves, and construction will continue as expected.