The story of Pleasant Litchford, an excavation and the remembrance of a racist history.
BY JOSIE STEWART, ’21.
Every day, students walk through the language arts hallway out the door to pile into cars in the senior lot. Although this year it may look different inside with masks and fewer students, the area outside has changed even more.
The construction of the new high school begins very close to the current building, with students being able to watch the progress from classroom windows. Right outside these doors, the usual asphalt has been replaced with gravel, a fence and near-frozen, wilted bouquets of flowers. It is not for the new school’s construction, though. It is in part to amend a problem created with the construction of the current high school building in 1950.
Pleasant Litchford was born in 1789 as a slave to the Litchford family in Campbell County, Virginia. After buying his freedom, he came to Columbus, Ohio, as a blacksmith and ended up the fourth largest landowner in the Backus Tract (the area south of Fishinger Road) with 227 acres of land*. Included in this land is the area where the high school stands.
“Pleasant Litchford owned all the land from North Star all the way to the other side of the Tremont Shopping Center. All of that was his land,” author Kim Shoemaker Starr said. “He started a school in 1872 and his daughter taught there since there was no place for African American students to be able to learn. That’s [where] the senior center [at Northam Park] is now.”
Besides being involved in education, Litchford also was involved in the Underground Railroad and with the founding of the Second Baptist Church.
Along with these accomplishments, he kept a cemetery on half an acre of his land where he himself was buried when he died in 1879 along with many other people who resided in this community.
After his death, his descendants inherited his land. It was not until 1918 that the more well-known Ben and King Thompson were able to start their “Country Club area” when they created Upper Arlington, then a village with less than 5,000 residents. While many students learn about the brothers who founded Upper Arlington, many are not aware of how they accomplished this goal.
“In 1920, Ben and King Thompson decided to make it a country club area. So, they started the Northwest Association,” Starr said. “[Despite the] Civil Rights Act in 1877 which said that everyone could buy land any place, they got away with not selling to African American or Jewish people by making an association. In order to buy a house in Upper Arlington, you had to pay $50 to the Association, and they had to check that you were not an African American or Jewish person.”
In 1948, similar restrictions were ruled upon by the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer when they considered whether this racially restrictive enforcement violated Equal Protection. It was found that these restrictive housing covenants are not enforceable in court.
Despite this, Upper Arlington continued this practice for years. In 1971, a suit was levied against the Northwest Arlington Homeowners Association after they blocked a Black man from purchasing a home. It wasn’t until this case that the association formally ended after being ruled against.
Assistant Director of the UA Historical Society Kristin Greenberg offers the fact, though, that these practices were common at the time.
“Many restrictions existed as Upper Arlington developed. Some of these involved creating open, green spaces, maintenance of parks, generous setbacks ensuring large front and corner lawns and carefully controlled development of separate areas for businesses and multi-family housing. But unfortunately during the period between 1920 to 1945, the practice of placing racially restrictive covenants in property deeds also became commonplace in subdivisions nationwide, including Upper Arlington,” Greenberg said. “From 1930 to 1945, 77.3% of the 22 new subdivisions built in the Columbus area either explicitly prohibited African Americans or permitted only whites.”
Greenberg also explained that there is language in deeds about race that remains today, but it is no longer enforceable. It sometimes reads “…until the [first] day of [ January] 1999, said premises or any part thereof, shall not be sold, leased, mortgaged, pledged, given or otherwise disposed of to, or owned, used or occupied by, any organization or persons in whole or part of the Negro race or blood, and this restriction shall be a condition and covenant running with the land for the benefit of any present or subsequent owner of other premises shown on said plat; provided, that nothing borein shall prohibit a person, while occupying said premises in compliance with this restriction, from employing as a servant a person not of the white race.”
Considering this along with practices such as redlining also being common, many pushed Upper Arlington to work on curriculum reform to include necessary background for UA students and ensure that they have a complete education and background of the long lasting effects of racism on socio- economic status. Students usually learn about the history of Upper Arlington in middle school and following the requests for reform, a committee led by Chief Academic Adviser Keith Pomeroy formed to add more information to this curriculum. Both Greenberg and Starr sat on the committee with Superintendent Paul Imhoff and other members of the community.
“We started with a timeline that gathered information and primary documents, which are being placed into the UA Archives with help from the Upper Arlington Historical Society,” Imhoff said. “This group looked for opportunities that can be used to expand our history curriculum across all grade levels. After the timeline committee finished its work, we formed a committee of third grade teachers so we can start by expanding the local history taught at that level. While this work has been delayed a bit due to the pandemic, we will still be able to make the update to these units and implement them this year.”
In 1955, a jury required that the Upper Arlington Board of Education remove bodies from a cemetery that Litchford kept on his land from their purchased tract of land before beginning construction on their new high school. It was decided that the Board must do this at its own expense and “reinter [the bodies] at some suitable place.” When the Board was called to a meeting, the topic was put up for a vote where all five members voted in favor of the motion that “a sum not to exceed $5,000 … is appropriated” for the purpose of removing these remains.
This agreement based on the $5,000 is where Starr first began developing ideas and research for Secrets Under the Parking Lot, a book she co-authored about Upper Arlington and Perry Township during the nineteenth century.
“When we first started doing the research, [co-author] Diane and I went to the Upper Arlington Board of Education building and said we’d like to see the minutes from 1955. They brought out this big book, and we sat in the conference room and started going through. [We] found where they said they allotted $5,000 to remove the seven to ten bodies that they thought were there,” Starr said. “After they removed 27 bodies, they stopped exactly at $5,000 since it was not to exceed [that amount]. That’s the first thing where we thought there had to be more bodies. You don’t just stop exactly at $5,000.”
As someone who cleans headstones, Starr followed this first realization with much of her other knowledge of cemeteries and the history of areas surrounding Upper Arlington.
“There was no place to bury African American people in that time frame of 1830 because they couldn’t be buried with [white people],” Starr said.
The two continued the process of authoring the book and researching the past of Columbus Suburban area and eventually published in 2016 dedicating their work to Pleasant Litchford “and all the people he influenced in his life.” Although much of the book is about life during the 19th century and the major families that lived here, there is a biographical section about Litchford’s life. Starr began researching him after moving back to Upper Arlington.
“I clean and restore cemeteries and headstones. I moved here from California in 2015 and after I got here—I’m from here and my kids are from here—I decided I should go clean the three cemeteries that are here,” Starr said. “I cleaned the entranceway to one, and I started wondering who are the McCoys? The Richards? I had no idea because I wasn’t taught that at [UA] schools. I went to the library and found a paragraph that said ‘A negro family cemetery was on the land of the Upper Arlington High School.’”
From there, she contacted co-author Diane Runyon who ran a genealogy business. After looking into the cemetery in Upper Arlington, she found the name Pleasant Litchford.
“When Upper Arlington hired people to remove the bodies [in the ‘50s], they came in with a backhoe and scooped them up and threw them into a turkey roaster—bones, sticks, everything. They drop an arm, it doesn’t matter,” Starr said. “All into this turkey roaster. There’s no markers. We don’t know who is who.”
These bodies were all moved to Union Cemetery where they are marked on their plot by a headstone that reads “Litchford Cemetery.”
After working with the school, a team dug underneath the area between the senior and back parking lots in late August earlier this year revealing six graves that were left behind.
“At times, twenty five people [watched the excavation],” Starr said. “We had some cross country runners or football players stop by. Construction [workers] were always at that gate and were so excited. It’s not just that we found some bodies, it was a Black cemetery [with] a story behind [it].”
Some of the remains, though, were only partial.
“There was a pile of bones. There was the ankle and foot bones of one person, but we have no idea who it is. We had another grave that had the leg bones, the feet and the ankles. Obviously, the back hoe [from the original excavation] split the person at the pelvis and left the rest of the body,” Starr said. “In the court case, it said that they were to remove all of the bodies respectfully. That’s not respectfully, and it was not all the bodies. They removed [some], covered the rest up, built the high school and led us to now.”
This was done at the district’s expense as Starr said that the school and Imhoff has been extremely receptive to their findings throughout this process. Both Starr and Imhoff agree that they need to “make a wrong right.”
Starr said that she is hoping that in addition to excavating remaining bodies and changing parts of the curriculum, the city will continue to honor Pleasant Litchford and the thriving African American community that sat in Upper Arlington prior to the Thompsons. She believes that his success inspired many of his descendants.
“All of his relatives have been so prosperous and they have continued to be so prosperous,” Starr said. “He was an amazing man, and Arlington should be so proud.”
Considering that six graves were found in August, Starr said they will likely be digging under other parts of the parking lot in the spring to ensure there are no remains left. She is hoping that with her discoveries, people will want to honor Litchford.
“We want to get Northam Park’s name changed to Pleasant Litchford Memorial Park. They changed Lane Road Park to Thompson. This is his land. It should be changed,” Starr said. “We’ve had a lot of pushback from people in the city wanting to talk to them to change the name. If you had Litchford, that brings the whole thing together that we are a welcoming community trying to get rid of that racist feeling. If you go around the city, people think that Upper Arlington is Upper Arlington. If you put Litchford there, it shows a balance. You’re not getting rid of the history. We’re trying to embrace it and make it better.”
Other residents wanted Ridgeview Road to be returned to its original name of Litchford Road. Starr doesn’t see this as necessary and more of a way to anger some people living on the street. Instead, she has seen his name left out of many books with Upper Arlington’s history, especially those written by the UA Historical Society and wishes for his name to be included more often.
Imhoff is also committed to this same change.
“The cemetery and the people who were laid to rest there are an important part of our community’s history, and we are committed to honoring that history. We will take the time that is needed to ensure that this is done completely and with dignity,” Imhoff said. “We are planning to work with the descendants of Pleasant Litchford as well as students, teachers and historians, to create historical displays regarding the family’s many contributions to our area. We will also have a memorial and are working with the descendants to find an area of the building to name in honor of Mr. Litchford.”
“I was raised right across the street [from the high school]. You take the driveway that goes out and it goes right into my driveway. I’m an only child, so I ran the halls [of the high school] and brought my dolls over there. That was my place,” Starr said. “That little girl was all alone and so was I. When I’m six years old and going to Tremont, I had a key around my neck and would go home and let myself in. I was all alone, and there she was all alone, too. We found her, and now she’s not going to be alone anymore.”
She hopes that the remains of the young girl will also get more empathy and clout for their cause and the change they want to make since Starr believes that this shows the character of a community.
“The respect a community has for its people is how they take care of their cemeteries. If you’re ever having a bad day, go to a cemetery. There are families wiped out, babies not born, mothers buried with a baby still in them—it says it all on the headstones. The stories are told there, and that’s why I clean them because you can’t even read some of them. The stories are there and they want to be remembered,” Starr said. “When I got started, I took some classes online, and I started in the very front of the cemetery and cleaned headstone by headstone. Everyone was important to me.”
She believes that this is why she finds Pleasant’s story so captivating.
“At one point, I started pulling at the grass and found this little square that had been grown over. It said ‘Baby Forrest,’ and there was no date on it. That mother doesn’t want her child forgotten. So, I brought him back,” Starr said. “That’s my goal with Pleasant. I want to bring him back. Wherever you want to be, it’s your story. You deserve to be there from the beginning to the end.”
*An earlier version of the story published the incorrect number of acres owned by Pleasant Litchford. It has now been updated with information provided by the Upper Arlington Historical Society.