Volunteers document unmarked graves of African-Americans in Cedar Rapids

Volunteers and local organizations are working to honor Black Iowans who were buried in unmarked graves.
Published: Mar. 8, 2023 at 10:45 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Volunteers and local organizations are working to honor Black Iowans who were buried in unmarked graves.

Their efforts are part of the larger project Rescuing Our Roots, which documents headstones from around the world.

As that project was carried out here, volunteers discovered some graves, those of Black Iowans, weren’t marked at all, so they worked to figure out a way that they could be remembered as well.

An unremarkable patch of grass in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids is the grave of Dorothy Robinson. According to Joseph Miller, regional President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Robinson was the first black nurse to work in an Iowa hospital. The LDS Church is one of several partners in the project Rescuing our Roots.

Miller said, in the course of conversations with leaders at the African American Museum of Iowa, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, and Bethel AME Church, “We discovered that there are a number of African American graves right here at Oak Hill Cemetery that that are unmarked. We felt very strongly that these members of our community needed to be remembered and needed to be found.”

So a smaller project within the already-existing one was formed to honor the unmarked graves of African-Americans.

Miller knows of at least 28 unmarked graves at Oak Hill. This June there will a ceremony in which temporary markers are placed on those graves. Pictures of them will then be uploaded into a database called Billion Graves, creating a digital memorial with a GPS marker.

“We can’t afford to create new markers, permanent markers, but we wanted to include them in the Rescuing our Roots project because we can at least make sure that they’re, they’re remembered and they’re found,” said Miller.

“The African American Museum of Iowa—our mission to preserve, exhibit, and educate so certainly taking part in this project, no matter how small our role might be definitely, is part of our mission,” said LaNisha Cassell, Director of the museum of Iowa. She added recording these gravesites is about respect and dignity.

“Being able to say, ‘Hey, this person deserved to have their name and their life on their headstone like everybody else in the cemetery,” she added.

Miller said his personal interest in genealogy has helped make him more resilient in the face of life’s challenges, so he hopes identifying these graves pays respect to their owners as well as helps those still living.

“We all care about our families, we all care about our heritage,” said Miller. “So that connection is very meaningful to all of us.”