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A former slave died a free man in Lakewood. 116 years later, he’s honored with a grave marker

Back in 1905, Henry Wright was the first Black person buried in Cleveland’s Alger Cemetery. But he had no grave marker.
Updated: Jun. 19, 2021 at 12:46 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Cemeteries are considered a sacred place to pay respects and remember those who’ve passed on from this life. But what happens when no one knows you’re there?

That appears to be the case at Alger Cemetery on Cleveland’s West Side.

“In the cemetery of 6000 graves, there’s probably 200 graves in the old section. We don’t even know who they are. They’re not even in the books. So we don’t know who they are,” said Ross Bassett, vice-president of West Park Historical Society.

And that’s how the journey started.

Bassett told 19 News that members researched the rosters and found hundreds of unmarked graves at Alger Cemetery, including a Mr. Henry Wright.

“He was buried in 1905. The first grave was 1813. But we finally come across this Henry Wright guy. And it’s like, okay, I’m going to research Mr. Wright because there was a ‘C’ after his name. And in 1905, that stood for colored. So he is our first Black burial in this graveyard from what we can tell,” said Bassett.

Records show Mr. Henry Wright was born enslaved in Louisiana.

We’re told he escaped and came north via the Underground Railroad where he ended up in Lakewood, Ohio. Research shows he lived in the woods off scraps of food until he met John West and his family.

John West & family hired enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, as a paid farmhand back in the late...
John West & family hired enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, as a paid farmhand back in the late 1800s.(West Park Historical Society)

“It’s very interesting that John West and and several other members of the community found out about this escaped slave living in the woods of Lakewood. They go down there, and the words the paper used was, they captured him,” said Bassett.

“But in Henry’s viewpoint, it was the happiest capture he ever had, because they brought him back to the West home and he was able to work on that farm for the next 20 or 30 years as a paid employee. Everyone loved him. When he was first captured he was fearful of white people, but Mr. West and folks in the community made him feel welcome,” he continued.

There are no documented photos of Mr. Henry Wright that anyone could find, but the local newspaper recorded stories of the West family’s popular farmhand.

“It’s hard to find much research. But we did find a marvelous article in one of the local papers that went in quite a bit of detail about his life. He was a large man, he was very well liked, he didn’t smoke or drink, he was liked by everyone and then you hear out the rest of his story,” said Bassett. “And everyone just thought the world of him. Eventually, he retired and lived at Hilliard and Mars in Lakewood and that’s where he passed away,” he said.

In 1905, Wright was buried at Alger Cemetery with other members of the West family but with no stone.

Bassett and others are now trying to right what they consider a grave injustice.

Henry Wright's grave received a marker 116 years after his death.
Henry Wright's grave received a marker 116 years after his death.(Sia Nyorkor)

“Henry Wright did his contribution and you know, at that time, they probably didn’t have money to buy a grave marker for somebody who was low on the economic scale. But unfortunately, now it’s 116 years later, and somebody uncovers this misjustice and we’re able to do something about it, which makes us feel real good as a society, because that’s what we are about: treating everyone equal,” he said.

On June 19, 2021, Mr. Henry Wright will be formally recognized. The O’Neill Foundation donated the funds to pay city and permit fees to purchase him a grave marker.

“Here we have somebody that we can honor to tell people about his story. They don’t know that there’s an escaped slave buried in our cemetery. They’re going to know now,” said Bassett.

West Park Historical Society honors enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, with grave marker on...
West Park Historical Society honors enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, with grave marker on Juneteenth. Wright has been buried at Alger Cemetery in Cleveland since 1905.(WOIO)

On Juneteenth, dozens gathered to say his name and reveal his name, set in stone.

West Park Historical Society honors enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, with grave marker on...
West Park Historical Society honors enslaved Black man, Henry Wright, with grave marker on Juneteenth. Wright has been buried at Alger Cemetery in Cleveland since 1905.(WOIO)

“If he’s looking down,” said Bassett “he’s smiling.”

Watch a video of the dedication in the player below.

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