LEXINGTON, Mo. — Wythena Levels lives in Kansas City, but she spent her childhood in Lexington, Missouri.
The granddaughter of Elmer and Cordia Radd remembers them fondly.
“In my grandparents' house was always music. Every day, even in the morning time or she’d be humming or doing something. My grandfather was a heavy hitter. He played at the Cotton Club. He had his own orchestra band," Levels remembered.
She has the photos to prove it.
After years of battling her own mental health challenges and getting her life back on track, Levels decided to reconnect with her family and its history. She compiled countless resources — from marriage licenses to newspaper clippings and photos.
One day, a book landed on her doorstep.
The "Forest Grove Cemetery Project" aims to repair the cemetery it is named for. The site has fallen into disrepair over the years, and many of those buried there have not been identified due to damaged tombstones or the lack of a tombstone at all.
Many buried in the cemetery were born into slavery, as it was established in 1854.
The cemetery project ended up pushing Levels to dig even deeper into her family's past — resulting in an interesting discovery.
“Judith Lindquist, she actually wrote this book, 'Forest Grove Cemetery Project,' and it just opened up a lot of things to me," Levels said. “I got to digging and digging and looking and digging and crying and praying and just everything. Then finally, I just got enough courage to go and say hey, my name is Wythena Triplett Levels and I need my deeds. They had no problem, they just handed them to me and I went from there.”
Elmer and Cordia Radd willed nearly a dozen lots of land to their granddaughter, but she was only able to reclaim one.
The remaining lots of land owned by the Radd family were auctioned off after Cordia's death in 1987 because no one came forward and back taxes on the property were due.
KSHB 41 made the trip to the Lafayette County Recorder of Deeds office to meet JoAnn Swartz, Diana Morris and Roxie Jones, the women who helped Levels prove her past.
“She knew this history of her family and she needed guidance on how to get started into finding the documentation that backed that up," Swartz shared.
“She’d find a piece. I’d find a piece. Wythena would give us another piece and we’d just draw the books out and go from there," Jones added.
The records in that office date all the way back to 1821. The women who work there spent weeks searching and validating the information Levels needed.
“I mean, the people behind you make you who you are today lots of times. So for her, it was gleaning that. I know who I am now. I know where I came from. I know what I stand on. I know where my ground is," Jones said.
Now, Levels owns the land where the home she spent summers in as a child once stood.
“It feels like restoration," she said with relief.
Her work isn't done yet.
Levels has looked through the Forest Grove Cemetery book countless times, which has caused her to think.
"There’s thousands of people in this book that families need to know they’re down there. And not just here in Kansas City, it’s thousands of places, cities and towns. Everything that people, their grandparents been laying there all that time waiting," she said.
Levels is resolute that she is the caretaker of her family's legacy.
"So here I am to tell you guys it’s not just me. It’s thousands of people that need to know that you do have a chance to get your land back. You do have a chance to get vindicated," she said.
Elmer Radd is buried at Forest Grove Cemetery in Lexington, but Levels is still trying to find where Cordia Radd is buried. If you believe you can help in that search, please contact KSHB 41.