The Story Behind the Human Remains Found at Upper Arlington High School
An explosive book, a horrifying discovery and an idyllic suburb forced to confront its racist past
Back in the 1960s, when young Kim Shoemaker (now Shoemaker Starr) was an only child looking for something to do, she sometimes rode her bike around the Upper Arlington High School parking lot across the street from her house. She didn’t know that just a few feet beneath the asphalt lay something that would, half a century later, become an obsession, inspiring years of research and a self-published book.
Last year, when Natalie Harrison was a high school junior, a teacher handed her a copy of that book. She didn’t know that the story she was about to read would lead her to dedicate much of her senior year to writing and producing a play to help her process what she’d learned and teach her community about its willfully forgotten history.
And in 2018, when Gahanna resident Toya Williams’ father died, and she went to Union Cemetery to reserve a burial plot for him, she didn’t know that she was about to learn precious information that would connect her to Starr, Harrison and, most importantly, an unknown ancestor named Pleasant Litchford, a Black pioneer of Columbus.
Litchford was born enslaved in Virginia but managed to purchase his freedom in 1828. He settled in Ohio a couple of years later and established a farm and blacksmith shop in the area that would become Upper Arlington. Widowed twice and married three times, father to nine children, Litchford eventually accumulated 227 acres of land, making him the fourth-largest landowner in Perry Township, much of which became communities such as Upper Arlington, Grandview and Marble Cliff. He gave a piece of his property to the town for the creation of a “colored” school and was the founding deacon of Second Baptist Church, still a pillar of Columbus’ Black community. Litchford died a wealthy and respected man in 1879—“Death of a Pioneer” was the headline for his obituary in the Daily Ohio State Journal—and was buried in the cemetery he had established on his property. In his will, he divided the land among his children and stipulated that the half-acre cemetery should forever remain his family burial ground.
Yet in 1955, less than a century after his death and just 30 years after the last known interment there, the Upper Arlington school district took the Litchford Cemetery by eminent domain to build a school on the site. Twenty-five sets of human remains were unceremoniously exhumed and reburied, without a stone to mark the spot, in a corner of Union Cemetery. Several additional remains were claimed by descendants of the dead and moved to Green Lawn Cemetery. With those bones, the final trace of Pleasant Litchford and his contributions to the area was removed as well—because Litchford’s land and the area surrounding it had passed into the hands of real estate developers, many of whom had plans for the area that did not include people like Pleasant Litchford.
They had become part of a new town, Upper Arlington, which was founded in 1918 by a pair of developers who envisioned a graceful, residential town, carefully designed and controlled. A “country club district,” they called it. A “suburb superb.” And, as with many country clubs of the time, they put in place rules to ensure that the residents would be like themselves: white.
The Daughters of the American Revolution gave Kim Starr a deep respect for genealogy and history. Like her mother before her, Starr is a member of the service organization composed of women who can trace their lineage to the Revolutionary War effort. DAR has long been viewed as a stronghold of white privilege, but Starr is quick to tell you that the organization has been admitting Black members since 1977.
Starr’s own background was not particularly privileged. A 1973 graduate of Upper Arlington High School, she married and raised six children in the suburb, working nights as a waitress. But when she divorced, she left the area and moved to California, where she started a small restaurant in the back of a market, Kimmy’s Home Style Restaurant. She did all the cooking herself.
When she retired in 2014, Starr went to stay with a daughter in Arkansas. On a walk through a local cemetery, she recalls, “I noticed the headstones were dirty. So I took a class online and learned how to clean them.” She cleaned 150 headstones. She liked to feel she was bringing the memory of the people buried there back to life.
Soon after, she moved back to Arlington and began looking for graves to continue her volunteer efforts. She found and cleaned two old, little-known cemeteries: one on the grounds of the Wellington School and another on private property, located behind a gas station. She cleaned the entrance to the memorial and gravesite of Bill Moose, the last Wyandot Indian in the area.
Eager to learn some of the history of the people whose headstones she was restoring, she went to the library and began to read. She came across a paragraph about a Black cemetery that was moved for Upper Arlington High School. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? How is this possible? All six of my kids graduated from UA; I graduated from UA; why do we not know about this?’”
Starr went to Union Cemetery and asked to see the records of the graves moved there. No one could help her because she didn’t have a name. That’s when she recruited her longtime friend Diane Kelly Runyon.
Runyon grew up in Cleveland, but the two became friends as young women at DAR conventions, where they volunteered as pages. Runyon taught history to middle schoolers in Grandview for 30 years, a hands-on teacher who once built a full-size prairie schooner for her class. That year, she was named the Ohio History Teacher of the Year. Retired from teaching, she had started a small business helping people trace their roots. Runyon spent much of her time searching for old records: land deeds, census reports, birth and death certificates.
It wasn’t hard to come up with Pleasant Litchford’s name. But additional information was hard to find. Intrigued, the friends began to search.
Over the two years that followed, Starr and Runyon visited libraries, cemeteries, mortuaries and a variety of government offices in Arlington, Columbus, Cincinnati and elsewhere. They traveled to Virginia to search, unsuccessfully, for Litchford’s manumission papers (documents granting him freedom from slavery). They visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C. They talked with archeologists. They chased down leads to find Litchford’s descendants—some still local and some scattered about the country. They spoke with local Black preservationists, like Sandra Jamison, the historian of Second Baptist Church, and Reita Smith, founder of the James Preston Poindexter Foundation, named after the Columbus abolitionist minister whom Litchford knew and worshipped with.
They wanted to learn about the Upper Arlington area’s early Black residents. They wanted to know who had been buried in Litchford Cemetery, which, their study of maps and surveys revealed, became the site of the high school parking lot.
A turning point came when they located Billy Martin, a former gravedigger who participated in the relocation of the Litchford Cemetery remains in 1955. Martin, 84 at the time of their recorded interview and now deceased, described using a backhoe to dig out the graves. Runyon and Starr were horrified at his description of bones jumbled together and bits of clothing hanging from the bucket of the excavator.
On the day of the digging, Martin did not see any grave markers on the site, although several “crumbling headstones” had been noted in a 1955 article in The Columbus Dispatch. The headstone of the Rev. Ezekiel Fields, the first pastor of Second Baptist Church, was claimed by a family member and now rests in the Near East Side congregation’s prayer garden; no others have been found. Runyon and Starr wondered if more gravestones might still be buried under the parking lot. Indeed, given the carelessness of the 1955 excavation, they wondered if human remains were there, too.
In 2016, Runyon and Starr self-published a book, “Secrets Under the Parking Lot,” with Runyon taking money from her retirement fund to help fund the publication. Runyon did the writing, targeting a middle-school-aged reader. Starr did the marketing. The book contains chapters on pioneer life in Ohio and Perry Township and includes background on some of the area’s early Indigenous residents and white settlers before narrowing its focus to Litchford and his family.
Born in 1789, Litchford became a blacksmith, a trade that he passed along to his sons. According to a history of Franklin and Pickaway counties published in 1880, he paid $1,400 to his owner who, according to the book, was also his father, to secure freedom for him, his wife, Catherine, and their four sons. Later, Litchford went back to free his mother for an additional $550. He brought his family to the Columbus area, and in 1832, he purchased a small farm near the Scioto River. Over the ensuing decades, he made many additional land purchases.
In compliance with the “Black Laws,” Litchford was compelled to pay a bond of $500 to the county to ensure he would not be a community burden. The authors’ research showed that Litchford’s bond was paid by William Neil, his neighbor, a transportation entrepreneur and the owner of a tavern that would become the Neil House hotel. To repay that debt, Litchford indentured his eldest son, Miles, to Neil. Miles later moved to Utah and became estranged from his father, although he inherited a share of the Litchford property.
Litchford joined a diverse community in the wilds of Perry Township: Native Americans, descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, immigrants, freed Black people and others looking to make a good life for their families. He joined the First Baptist Church, which had been formed in 1823; of its 11 founding members, three were Black. In 1836, the Black church members split off and founded Second Baptist Church; Litchford was the new church’s first deacon.
Reita Smith points out that while Pleasant Litchford’s story was not, until now, widely known in the Black community, some of his descendants are remembered as community leaders. His grandson William H. Litchferd (the name turns up with various spellings across the family tree) established the elegant Litchford Hotel at 90 N. Fourth St. in 1916 as a place where Black people could stay when other establishments would not admit them. Its Club Litchford hosted many well-known musical acts, such as Nancy Wilson. Also related to Pleasant was C. W. Bryant, founder of a company that played a key role in the construction of many important Columbus buildings.
“The Black community knew about the Litchfords, knew about their contributions,” Smith says. “But like so much of our history, it wasn’t shared with their children.”
Growing up, Toya Williams knew little of her father’s mother, Laura Walker, who had died of an embolism just a day after giving birth to him in 1937. But as Williams’ father neared death, he reminded his children of this lineage, and he told them that he wanted to be buried near his birth mother in Union Cemetery.
After he died in 2018, Williams, who works as an administrative assistant to the Franklin County commissioners, went to find her grandmother’s grave. In the cemetery office, she was told that Laura Walker had turned up on the family tree of Pleasant Litchford. She went home and did some research. Because of the break in her own family story, Runyon and Starr had not located her earlier, when they were looking for Litchford relatives. After reading their book, she reached out to them.
Williams takes pride in her newfound family history. “It’s a good thing for me,” she says. “I like to know where I come from. I told my sister Tanya, ‘We come from good stuff.’ … He was a man of family, faith and education, and about bettering not only his family, but his community.”
Through Starr, Williams made the acquaintance of relatives she never knew. “It’s like the pieces of the puzzle just fit together.”
The same year that Williams learned of her connection to Pleasant Litchford, Upper Arlington celebrated its 100th anniversary. The historical society published a coffee-table-sized book to commemorate the occasion: “A Cherished Past, A Golden Future.” While the book includes a chapter on the years before the city’s 1918 incorporation, its main focus is on describing an idyllic suburb where “people smile and nod as they pass each other,” where grass-encircled houses “look as if they could breathe,” and “families on bikes head to lush parks.”
“All part of the original plan,” the story reads. A plan created by land developer and city founder King Thompson.
In 1913, Thompson and his brother Ben purchased 840 acres south of Lane Avenue and began subdividing it to create a type of neighborhood that had been springing up across the U.S for a couple of decades: a planned community. The Thompson acreage did not include Litchford property; but in the ensuing years, Litchford’s heirs sold their land and it was, bit by bit, annexed into the city the Thompsons founded in 1918, Upper Arlington.
Before planned communities, areas outside U.S. cities developed without restrictions. “They were the true opportunity communities,” says Glennon Sweeney, a senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. But in the late 19th century, investment groups began to pour capital into real estate development, opening up the possibility of creating something more uniform and regulated. Thompson was partial to the Garden City concept, with curving streets that created a parklike atmosphere. “The time has come in the city of Columbus when a new restricted residence section should be provided for the better class of homes,” Thompson wrote in a 1914 brochure.
Implicit in his advertising was that these homes were also for a “better class” of people. The earliest deeds did not exclude people by race or religion; rather, they banned uses associated with the poor and minorities, such as subsistence farming. They specified minimum sizes and minimum prices for homes. But it wasn’t long before deeds began to explicitly prohibit property owners from selling to Black people.
Between 1920 and 1945, according to the book “Planning for the Private Interest: Land Use Controls and Residential Patterns in Columbus, 1900–1970” by Patricia Burgess, 24 subdivisions in Upper Arlington were platted with racially restrictive covenants. Upper Arlington was not alone. During the 1920s, the book reveals, 67.5 percent of new subdivisions in Columbus and its suburbs “had some sort of race restriction on ownership, occupancy, or both. Most common was the prohibition of Blacks (41.8 percent), whom deeds referred to as ‘Negroes,’ ‘mulattoes,’ or ‘persons wholly or partly of African blood.’” Some of these also excluded Asians and Jews by limiting ownership or occupancy to Caucasians. “Deeds also singled out ‘undesirables,’ ‘foreigners’ and ‘foreigners of the dago class’ for exclusion (along with non-Caucasians), particularly on the northeast side of town,” Burgess writes.
“When we look back in history, none of our suburbs look particularly good,” says Sweeney. “But Arlington has a little bit of a rougher road, because they have a particular history when it comes to race, given how early it was founded and the prolific use of racial restrictions in the community.”
In a landmark 1948 case, Shelley v. Kraemer, the U. S. Supreme Court determined that it was unconstitutional for state courts to enforce racially restrictive covenants. But the exclusionary practice continued. In Upper Arlington, a group was formed, the Northwest Arlington Association, and in some developments, homeowners were required to join before purchasing. If an applicant for membership was Black, the association would exercise its right of first refusal and purchase the home itself and sell to a white person. In this way, housing discrimination continued in some parts of Upper Arlington, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
It took a 1971 lawsuit to finally end the exclusion of Black people. A Black couple made a contract to buy a home on Leeds Road, and when the Northwest Arlington Association bought the house away from them, the couple sued the homeowner group, as well as John H. Pace, a trustee of the association who was also president of King Thompson & Co. and the chair of the Ohio Real Estate Commission, charging that the association’s practices were discriminatory. Judge Clifford Rader of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas agreed. He awarded $15,000 in damages to the couple, ordered the exclusionary body dissolved and declared the restrictive covenants null and void, according to a 1971 Columbus Dispatch article.
Still, says Sweeney, “Upper Arlington has a reputation as not being super welcoming to minoritized communities. And that’s no secret.” It’s very likely why, decades later in 2019, the city was still 90.1 percent white, according to the U.S. Census, and only 0.3 percent Black, with 2.3 percent of residents identified as multiracial.
Diane Runyon says she never wanted to write a book, but felt she had no choice. “If we didn’t do that, all that research and all that history would be sitting in a box in my garage,” she says. “It was a life. It was a life of an entire African American culture in Upper Arlington that would have been not only forgotten; it would have been forgotten forever.”
But Starr and Runyon say their story got a chilly reception from local officials. The public library turned down their application to give a talk about their findings, citing poor attendance at local history programs and local author talks. The two reserved a room on their own and attracted an overflow audience, but were barred from selling or signing the book inside the building. (Beth Hatch, who joined the library as director in 2020, says only authors invited in by the library are permitted to sell books on the premises.) They met with the historical society, but were disappointed to see that the group included little of the information the authors shared about Litchford in its 2017 centenary book.
Starr and Runyon persisted, however, and in 2018, when the city put plans in place to tear down the high school and build a new one, they saw an opportunity to get their story out. They met with school superintendent Paul Imhoff, and his response pleasantly surprised them. “He said, ‘We will do anything to make this right,’” says Starr. “‘We’re going to make a wrong right. Doesn’t matter how much it costs.’”
As plans developed to build a new school and demolish the old one, school officials began working with Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc to plan a supervised excavation to find any human remains that might still exist under the building or parking lot. While the original plan had been to put the new parking lot in the same location as the old one, the district decided to move it so that after excavation, demolition and construction are complete, a memorial park can be created there, with family approval.
The school assembled a committee of volunteers, which included the authors, local historians and Toya Williams and other Litchford descendants, to begin gathering information in support of revising the school curriculum to cover a broader swath of the area’s history in its local history classes, beginning with the third grade.
Other organizations began to join the effort. Equal UA, a group founded by Upper Arlington parents in 2017 to promote diversity, equity and inclusion, created a college scholarship endowment in Pleasant Litchford’s name. An online Pleasant Litchford Archive was assembled by the library. The Upper Arlington Historical Society launched a research project aimed at better understanding the history of racially restrictive covenants in Upper Arlington.
The Pleasant Litchford story began getting attention outside the suburb, as well. The WOSU documentary series Columbus Neighborhoods produced a segment about Litchford in 2018, winning a regional Emmy.
Last summer, crews excavated the two areas of the high school parking lot that archaeologists thought were the most likely to contain any left-behind human remains. The careful and controlled proceedings were attended by some of Pleasant Litchford’s descendants and, of course, Starr and Runyon.
The first dig revealed nothing but construction debris. The second, however, turned up something extraordinary: the complete skeletal remains of a 14-year-old girl. Her face was covered by shards of glass from a viewing window in her long-gone coffin; resting at her side were a hairbrush and comb. In addition, the archeologists found partial remains of three other individuals—evidence that the earlier work had indeed been shoddy.
For all involved, it was a solemn finding. But for Runyon and Starr, it was also a vindication. And for the community, it was tangible proof that Upper Arlington’s buried history was, indeed, real and worthy of attention.
Natalie Harrison became interested in the Pleasant Litchford story when her drama teacher handed her “Secrets Under the Parking Lot” in 2019. But it was an incident last summer that inspired her to delve deeper. She and some other students were making signs for an alumni association display for the city’s pandemic-altered July 4 celebration. Some students painted “Black Lives Matter” and “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) on the backs of the signs, where they thought they wouldn’t be seen. They returned a day later to find their slogans painted over.
Harrison learned that the alumni association had covered up the slogans, and accepted the explanation that it was to protect her and her friends from getting in trouble. But the incident rankled, and it fed her desire to do something to increase understanding of historic injustices in her community. She asked Starr to be her mentor for a senior project: a deeply researched play about the burial of Upper Arlington’s early history and the desecration of the graveyard of a Black pioneer.
Her play, called “Legacy,” was performed in May. It tells the story of an Upper Arlington student who learns about Pleasant Litchford’s cemetery as part of a—no surprise—school project. The details are shared by “storytellers” who represent the voices of written and forgotten history. A wise narrator links the voices of the storytellers with the unfolding contemporary tale.
“Some people come into our lives for only an instant, and yet they can change our perspective entirely,” the narrator says as the play draws to a close. “They shape us into who we are, and if we’re lucky enough, our story will be told even after we’re gone. And if we’re brave enough, we’ll fight for the stories of those who no longer have a voice.”
Is Toya Williams angry about the way her ancestor’s cemetery was treated? “I’m grateful for them being respectful of the body found under the parking lot, and acknowledging their history and what they did,” she says. “It was an unfortunate circumstance that the bodies were still there, but they’re trying to make it right. And that’s what matters.”
The high school that was built on the site of a graveyard will be demolished this summer, along with its parking lot. Archaeologists will sift the soil and search for further human remains. After that, plans will proceed to build a memorial on the site.
And in the community, conversations will continue. An online panel discussion hosted by the city earlier this year was moderated by Carl Smallwood, a retired partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease and a co-director of the Divided Community Project at OSU’s Moritz College of Law who was one of only two Black members of his graduating class at Upper Arlington High School in 1974. Smallwood said he wishes he had known about Pleasant Litchford growing up.
“Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re part of the community if you don’t see yourself in the community,” he said. “And I hope that the stories that we are discovering will become part of the stories that our children get to hear in school … so that those who are of African descent will see themselves represented in the history of Upper Arlington—and those who aren’t of African descent will understand that there were people of African descent in the history that became Upper Arlington.”
This story is from the July 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.