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The Comeback Of One Of Cleveland's Oldest Cemeteries

Woodland Cemetery is one of Cleveland’s oldest, but it’s located in a neighborhood that doesn’t get a lot of love. After years of neglect, the front door of this 167-year-old site is getting a facelift.

Surrounded by housing projects and battered real estate along Woodland Avenue on the East Side of town, Woodland Cemetery is the final resting place for a cross-section of Clevelanders, from the city's richest families to some unknown indigents.

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Monument for African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War for the North [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

In recent years, a contingent of black Civil War veterans was discovered with the help of a database built from old records by Michelle Day, who has several generations of her own family buried here. 

As president of the Woodland Cemetery Foundation, Day spearheaded a campaign to get the cemetery's historic gatehouse rebuilt after she discovered it in pieces several years ago, stacked up just inside the front entrance.

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The pieces and parts of the Woodland gatehouse were stacked near the entrance for years before the reconstruction began [Tim Evanson]

“A lot of people would ask what those stones were,” said Day. “Well, the stones were the gatehouse. They disassembled it in 1995 and 1996, because it was a safety hazard in the city and they didn't want to put the money in to repair it. So, they disassembled it in hopes of one day reassembling it.”

That day has come and there are plans afoot to hold a rededication ceremony in mid-June. Of course, scheduling any public event is iffy these days, given concerns about spreading the coronavirus.

History inside

The cemetery offers a different perspective on time.

“The first burial was June 23rd, 1853. The dedication of the cemetery was June 14th, 1853,” Day said. “It was not segregated at all, even by religion or race. So, it was open, it was a public cemetery.”

Day added that there are a number of prominent people at Woodland, but the average person might not recognize their names, like Cleveland postmaster Joseph Briggs, who created the idea for home mail delivery in the U.S.

“That was due to the Civil War, because he got tired of women standing on Public Square wanting to get mail out to their husbands who were at war,” she said.

Up until that point, Day said Clevelanders came to the main post office downtown to send and pick-up mail. When he saw lines of wives standing in the snow outside the post office with their letters and packages, Briggs devised a plan for home delivery.

“And it started here in Cleveland,” Day said. “And then the federal government liked the design of it. So they took it nationwide.”

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Carrie Williams Clifford published "Race Rhymes" in 1911

Woodland Cemetery is also the final resting place for a number of notable African Americans, offering a history of both pride and shame. Black poet Carrie Clifford, who helped found the predecessor to the NAACP, is buried here. And, so is Sara Lucy Bagby Johnson, the last person to be arrested and tried as a fugitive slave, according to the website Cleveland Historical.

Michelle Day is hoping that the gatehouse rededication will bring more visitors to discover the riches of this historic, 60-acre site.

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One of four stone fireplugs marking the grave of former fire chief James Dickenson, who fought to get a regular salary for fire fighters [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

“With the genealogy movement going on, more and more people are doing that,” she said. “They're researching their roots, and if it brings them back to Cleveland, there's a good chance that they're actually here in Woodland Cemetery.”

During reconstruction, visitors will have to enter the grounds through the back entrance, along Quincy Avenue.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.