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Dedication for Liberty African American Legacy Memorial takes place Saturday

clay county cemetery memorial
Posted at 8:20 AM, Jun 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-17 10:32:48-04

LIBERTY, Mo. — The Clay County African America Legacy Inc. partnered with organizations and volunteers to create the Liberty African American Legacy Memorial.

The memorial honors the legacy of more than 750 African Americans buried in unmarked graves at the Fairview-New Hope cemetery, dating back to the 1800s.

Last August, the group broke ground on the memorial. This Saturday, it'll be displayed for everyone to see, starting at 9 a.m. at Fairview-New Hope cemetery.

"I’ve been walking through this cemetery 70 years," said 79-year-old Shelton Ponder. "And each time I come, I’m renewed because somebody who had it far harder than I had it."

Ponder knows many of the people buried in the cemetery, some of whom are his ancestors and others buried in unmarked graves.

But now, those names will be remembered on the African American Legacy Memorial. Roughly $200,000 was raised for this project.

When the work began on the memorial, ground penetrating radar was used, to make sure no graves were disrupted. Whenever excavating was done, Clay County leaders say a licensed funeral director and park staff were on site when construction was going on.

Seeing the memorial set in the ground for the first time was an exciting moment for Ponder.

"This is amazing to stand here," Ponder said. "I stand for a family that’s been here 200 years. It's, it’s amazing."

For AJ Byrd, whose great grandfather and other family members are buried there, this memorial shows the process of healing.

"I have family, the Houstons, who are buried here, so it’s very personal to me and it’s very important to know who they were and what they contributed," Byrd said. "It’s an opportunity to heal, to recognize the contributions that the African Americans made in this community."

As the memorial made its way down to the ground, the gravity of the moment became clear for many involved in this project.

"Emotions were so great because I have been reading and writing and researching these African American pioneers for almost 40 years," Dr. Cecelia Robinson said. "This memorial is the culmination of a dream come true. Finally, the African Americans who have helped to build Clay County, who came here almost 200 years ago at the founding of this community, they’re being honored and recognized."

The pioneers will always be a part of Clay County's history.

"Hopefully a person can come here 10 times and each time they notice something or learn something they didn’t know before," said Harold Phillips, Liberty councilman. "And if we do that, then this project has been quite a success in honoring and respecting those that were named."

Robinson says it's important to remember history.

"What has happened in the past has given us wisdom and knowledge that will help us to ensure a hopeful future," Robinson said. "Now we’re going to go forward with new hope as we lift every voice and sing hope for the present."

Ponder says while it can seem like those who paved the way lived long ago, their memory is alive today.

"They’re not gone, they’re there," Ponder said pointing at the memorial. "They’re not gone."

The memorial dedication, a part of Clay County's Juneteenth celebrations this week, begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Fairview-New Haven Cemetery.

There will be other events happening to celebrate Juneteenth, including a parade starting a 6 p.m. Friday at the Liberty Square.

For a full list of events, click here.