How two local authors discovered that there could be bodies under UAHS
By Ellise Shafer, ’17
Growing up in Upper Arlington, it is customary for all elementary students to learn about those who founded the city in 1918: Ben and King Thompson. However, what students do not learn is that before Upper Arlington was Upper Arlington, there was a thriving African American community in the area where the high school stands.
They lived there, died there and were buried in a family plot. All the bodies were thought to be removed when the construction of UAHS began in the 1950s. But, recent research conducted by authors Diane Runyon and Kim Shoemaker Starr indicates that they were not – and the bodies of our oldest ancestors still remain under the very lot that seniors get the luxury of parking in every day.
This new information has been revealed in Runyon and Starr’s book, “Secrets Under the Parking Lot: The True Story of Upper Arlington, Ohio and the History of Perry Township in the Nineteenth Century”, published in January of this year. The duo has worked together for over 40 years, with Runyon being an acclaimed history teacher and genealogist, and Starr a grave restoration specialist.
When Starr began cleaning neglected cemeteries in the Upper Arlington area, she researched who was buried in them and eventually contacted Runyon for help.
“I did the genealogy and found that Pleasant Litchford came here with his family in the late 19th century. They were all freed slaves from Virginia and they lived where they statehouse is, in the woods. Now when the statehouse was built, being a master blacksmith, he pretty much was right there at the right time,” Runyon said. “He was able to earn some money and after he’d been here only three years he was able to purchase his first piece of land. Eventually, he amassed a large amount of property and became the fourth largest landholder in Perry Township.”
Part of the land that Litchford owned included two farms where Ridgeview Rd. and Zollinger Rd. now stand. In fact, Ridgeview Rd.’s original name was Litchford Township Rd., as it was customary then for roads to be named after the original landowners. Between the two farms, the Litchfords reserved half an acre for a burial plot.
“People of color could not be buried in white cemeteries during those days, so a lot of black people that lived in rural areas would have their own cemeteries,” Runyon said. “[Litchford] had half an acre that could hold up to 400 graves and he was such a kind, inviting man and such a part of the community that there were a lot of people that were buried in his family plot that were not even related to him.”
In 1876, Litchford also donated part of his land to open a Colored School, which stood where the Tremont Senior Center is now.
“It’s just amazing how one person can change an entire community and prosper for the people that he loved,” Runyon said. “And obviously, they loved him back.”
At the time of Litchford’s existence, Runyon does not believe that there was much racial strife, meaning that Litchford was accepted by the white members of Perry Township as an equal.
“Everybody needed each other. You needed the guy that had the gristmill, who needed the blacksmith, who needed the horse trader,” Runyon said. “It wasn’t like ‘okay, I’m not buying that from you because you’re a different color.’ And they would never sold him all that land if they didn’t want him there.”
However, in the early 20th century, once Ben and King Thompson began to make Upper Arlington into what it is today, the attitude towards people of color in Perry Township shifted.
“Upper Arlington was considered a sundown town [when it was founded]. The reason they were called sundown was because if you were a person of color and you were not in your area after the sun went down, that was not good,” Runyon said. “[Upper Arlington’s covenant] said that people of color could not live, rent, own, look at or stand in Upper Arlington unless they were in servitude, and this was to go on until 1999.”
To make room for the construction of the high school, all of the bodies in Litchford’s cemetery were moved to either Union Cemetery or Greenlawn Cemetery– or so they thought.
“What’s interesting about old cemeteries is that they’re not necessarily all in a straight row. They’re very unique in that way,” Runyon said. “So when they decided to remove the bodies, they really didn’t know where they were, so they dug them in straight lines.”
Because of this, Runyon and Starr have reason to believe that there are more remains in the area where the senior parking lot and baseball diamonds are. In June, radar technology will be used to determine if this is true. If it is, Superintendent Paul Imhoff intends to have them removed and to place a marker on the high school grounds to commemorate Litchford.
“If we find evidence that something is there, we will work with experts to have those remains relocated,” Imhoff said. “We would also like to create markers of some sort for both the high school and the cemetery where the remains were reinterred to honor the lives of these residents.”
Although “Secrets Under the Parking Lot” has been met with some backlash from the community – including Upper Arlington Public Library refusing to give Runyon and Starr their support and stock the book – the school board is on their side.
“When we brought this to their attention we didn’t know what they were gonna say and whose side they were going to be on so we are just so blessed,” Starr said.
And, as of March, Runyon and Starr have sold 400 copies of the book and held the largest book signing ever at the Kingsdale Barnes & Noble.
“We just want to make sure that pioneers are recognized,” Starr said. “1918 was the beginning of Upper Arlington but it was not the beginning of this area.”