In 1955, Upper Arlington built its high school on top of a historic African American cemetery. Now, as it starts construction on a new high school, the district has uncovered six graves dating back nearly 200 years.
Pleasant Litchford created the cemetery after migrating to Ohio from Virginia in 1828. A blacksmith by trade who bought his freedom from slavery, Litchford was one of the major landowners in Upper Arlington in the mid-1800s, but his family and other Black families were excluded from the area's white cemeteries.
While the district removed many of the cemetery's remains in the mid-1950s, Diane Runyon and Kim Shoemaker Starr, who wrote about the cemetery in the book Secrets Under the Parking Lot, believed some were still underneath the site.
“I’ll be honest, and I’m not proud of this, but we were not aware of this history,” says Upper Arlington superintendent Paul Imhoff.
So the district got to work, recruiting archaeologists to scan the parking lot and parts of the building to find the likely areas where remains might be located. They discovered a site earlier this summer, and in the past week found six graves.
“Three of them were fully exhumed," Imhoff says. "In two of the graves, we found some remains. And in one of the graves, we found a full body."
Throughout the project, the district has been collaborating with Litchford’s descendants. The remains will be examined, with DNA tests to determine ancestry, and the school will work with the family or families to determine their final resting place.
“We also want to put a permanent marker on this site to talk about the history of the Litchford family and the history of this site,” Imhoff says.
The education effort will extend to the districts’ classrooms as well.
“This is not a time period in our history that we are proud of, but we need to tell the story of our whole history," Imhoff says. "So we are currently rewriting our Upper Arlington history units in our schools, because we had not even taught the history of the Litchford family. And we are fixing that now."