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Former slave to get marked grave at cemetery in Ohio 114 years after death

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Posted at 3:09 PM, Jun 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-08 18:09:26-04

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — At the Oakwood Cemetery in Cuyahoga Falls, you'll find headstones for people who served in Marine Corps in Vietnam, in the Navy during the Korean War, in the Army during World War II, and even a memorial to soldiers who served during the Civil War.

But in Section B, Lot 621, there is a section of grass where no markers appear, no way to honor those buried there.

However, that is about to change thanks to findings by the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society and an upcoming planned ceremony organized by Dimensions of Ism and Northeast Ohio Community members.

"I think it's time to do that reckoning and to take the time to acknowledge that their lives mattered, that they are important," said Sunny Matthews, who runs Dimensions of Isms.

After digging through old records and photos, the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society determined John Hansparker, a slave in Virginia before he was freed and came to Cuyahoga Falls between 1865-1870, buried at one of the unmarked gravesites.

Hansparker's wife, Emily, a freed slave born in Mississippi, is buried two spaces over. Helen Hansparker, either John's daughter or stepdaughter, is between the two.

According to local historians, John Hansparker worked as a laborer at Rivet Works, and his wife was a washerwoman. Both died in 1907, but only Emily Hansparker had a known death record, which listed her as a former Dixie slave.

Shawn Andrews, the secretary on the board for the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society, did some of the detective work to find the final resting place for the family and found it to be significant.

"There's even more of an importance there, that these were folks who a lot of times we're not able to trace their history," Andrews said.

Plans are now in the works to finally mark the graves of the Hansparker family. A fundraising effort is underway to buy a gravestone dedicated on June 19-- known as Juneteenth-- a day that observes the end of slavery in the U.S. The event at the cemetery starts at 12 p.m.

"For me, Juneteenth is a time to honor. It's a time to commemorate. It's a time to celebrate," Matthews said. "I don't know if I'll be able to get through it without crying because this is my chance to stand at ancestor's grave."

Throughout the cemetery, there's a lot of history you can see and plenty you cannot.

In less than two weeks, people will gather to ensure a family who escaped slavery is not forgotten.

"I want people to know their story," Matthews said.

Bob Jones at WEWS first reported this story.