Celebrating Black History Month: Ohio woman searches for her ancestor’s final resting place

Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 9:29 PM EST
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AKRON, Ohio (WOIO) - Umarked and forgotten -- but not anymore.

A Northeast Ohio woman discovered her great-great grandmother’s final resting place nearly 100 years after her death during a time of segregation.

Now she is honoring her ancestor by trying to fix this wrong from the past.

We’re highlighting Natalie Warren’s journey to learn more about her ancestor and herself during Black History Month.

Natalie found an old black and white photo one day of her ancestor and had a lot of questions.

Family members knew her name was Arena Veal, but her past was a mystery to many of them a few generations later.

“I just kind of was inspired one day when I found her photo, in my great-grandmother’s house. I had never seen it before. I said, ‘who’s this?’” Warren said.

Natalie Warren researches her ancestor's history at the Akron Public Library.
Natalie Warren researches her ancestor's history at the Akron Public Library.(WOIO)

Natalie learned Arena died young of pneumonia back in 1924.

She left behind several children, including Natalie’s great-grandmother, who was just two years old at the time.

“So she passed away at 27, which is the same age I am now,” Warren said.

“And it was coincidental and just kind of seemed like it was meant to be for me to find her,” she said.

Natalie’s family knew Arena lived and died in Akron, but not much else, including where she was buried.

So Natalie set out to find her.

“It being 100 years ago, I was a little nervous I wouldn’t find where she was located,” she said.

“Everything was so segregated, I thought, I don’t know, she could be anywhere.”

Finding her ancestor meant uncovering part of Akron’s history too.

Natalie was surprised to learn the Ku Klux Klan was highly influential in the city.

The Summit County Historical Society told 19 News several leaders from the government and education were in the KKK.

During her research, Natalie found no trace of where the Black community once lived in many places around the city.

“The part of Akron that was heavily populated by the African American community was actually mostly demolished,” she said.

Natalie kept digging.

An old map from the 1920s at Akron Public Library.
An old map from the 1920s at Akron Public Library.(WOIO)

In books and records at the Akron Public Library, she found Arena’s name spelled multiple ways.

“Kind of gives you an idea of what their life might have been like a little bit,” she said, looking through a large, old book.

UnmarkedOn historic maps, she discovered the street her great-great-grandmother lived on.

“There’s no home there anymore, just an old brick road,” Warren said.

She also searched online and updated her family tree.

Arena’s life started to come into focus as the documents started piling up.

Then, Natalie started calling Akron’s historic cemeteries.

And a simple phone call led her to what she was looking for-- Arena Veal’s final resting place.

Natalie learned she was buried at Mount Peace Cemetery in Akron.

But there was no marker or headstone to honor her life.

Still, Natalie was happy to finally know where she was buried.

“As soon as I came across it, a little bee flew on me, and I kind of took that as a sign. And I visited a few times since,” Warren said.

Natalie Warren found her great-great grandmother's final resting place in an Akron cemetery,...
Natalie Warren found her great-great grandmother's final resting place in an Akron cemetery, but it was unmarked.(WOIO)

Her family name may not be etched in stone, but it turns out part of Natalie’s family history was always just steps away.

“This cemetery is maybe a five minute walk from my house and I lived in the area since my childhood, so it was a big surprise to know that I had ancestry here,” Warren said.

And there was another welcome surprise.

“I thought they might have segregated the cemetery at the time, but I don’t think they did, which was a little ahead of the time,” she said.

Natalie doesn’t know why her great-great grandmother’s gravesite is unmarked, but she knows she can’t leave it that way now that she’s found it nearly a century later.

“I think she definitely deserves to have that marker and I think her life, no matter how short it was, deserves to be tributed and I’m excited to be able to do that for her,” Warren said.

She still doesn’t know a lot about Arena’s life, but Natalie knows this-- her name will live on.

“I’m so excited for that part, and just being able to come here and see her name. I don’t know, there’s no words. It’s really special,” she said.

Learning more about those who came before her led Natalie to find out more about herself.

“I know that things probably weren’t easy for her at that time. It’s important to remember what they went through and had to go through so that we could live the lives that we do today,” Warren said.

Natalie started a gofundme page to help pay for a headstone for her great-great-grandmother.

She hopes to be able to honor her with a headstone sometime soon.

Natalie Warren holds up a photo of her great-great grandmother Arena Veal.
Natalie Warren holds up a photo of her great-great grandmother Arena Veal.(WOIO)

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