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They, Too, Lived

How three women worked for decades to honor African Americans buried in a Weston cemetery

Angela Hagenbach stood in Laurel Hill Cemetery on January 20, 2020. It was freezing cold — 12 degrees, to be exact — with snow on the ground and more snow falling from the sky. A cloth was pulled from a large monument that she and others gathered around. 

Before the crowd gathered there, 400 names were written in granite on a headstone for the hundreds of African Americans who had laid in Laurel Hill for decades — some, centuries — with no marker. The memorial included names of the dead who had rested there from 1816 to 1846 with no headstone. Some of the names written on the stone belonged to Angela’s ancestors and, as their names were uncovered and known to the world again, the snow stopped and a ray of light shone through the trees in the cemetery. Angela felt that it was a signal they were, once again, at peace. 

Laurel Hill Cemetery is a graveyard in Weston, Missouri just outside of the historic downtown. Originally known as City Cemetery, the graveyard is unendowed, with its care provided by volunteers and donations. Today, the cemetery has a winding path that takes you through gravestones of early Missourians and includes signage pointing out notable people buried there, such as descendants of Daniel Boone and Civil War soldiers from both sides. 

In the 19th century, the cemetery was one of the only places in the area that allowed the burial of Black people, and people would travel there to bury their dead. Before the Civil War, enslaved workers could only bury their loved ones after the work day was over, and so they would travel to Laurel Hill by torchlight and hold funerals in the dark. 

The section of the cemetery for African Americans, known historically as the Colored Section, lies along the left side of the path near the entrance to the cemetery, which winds along a ridgeline. The section is primarily in a ravine and is dotted with a few headstones. It’s unknown why many of the buried in this section are without headstones — some think they were marked with wood crosses, which did not stand up to the elements like the other limestone and granite markers. And because this section of the cemetery doesn’t have many headstones, modern Westonians did not know there were people buried there, and the discovery came in a way that seems like the opening to a movie. 

Patrick Larsen and his brother, Chris, were in Laurel Hill Cemetery marking the graves of soldiers and veterans with American flags on Memorial Day as part of a Boy Scout Project. Young boys at the time, they started playing around in the graveyard after their task was over when one of them came across a headstone in the ravine. Curious about it, the boys told their mother, Carolyn A. Bless Larsen.

Carolyn belonged to a long lineage of Westonians — many of them buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Her family owned the local newspaper, The Weston Chronicle, for many generations, and she herself served as editor and publisher of the paper. She also worked as an archivist for the state of Missouri and has other resume lines as a city councilwoman, EMT, lay minister, and four-time cancer survivor. Carolyn was the perfect person to investigate a headstone in Laurel Hill. 

According to her son Patrick, Carolyn started to look into the mystery of the headstone. She had access to much of Weston’s historical records as editor of the paper, and used those resources, as well as Platte County historical records and local funeral home documents, to find the answers. What she discovered was that there were many people buried in unmarked graves in that section of the cemetery, their names lost to history.

Carolyn worked for a decade to uncover the names of people buried there, scanning obituaries, death notices, and burial records under the different names the cemetery had over the years. And though admittedly not comprehensive, she was able to find the names of 400 people buried in Laurel Hill that did not have headstones. 

In 2009, Carolyn published her findings in a self-published book, “We, Too, Lived: A genealogy of the African-Americans in a Midwest Cemetery, 1850-1950.” The book was given to the Weston Historical Museum, where Carolyn once worked, which put up an exhibit about it. And that may have been the end of the story if Carla Sutton had not stumbled upon Carolyn’s research years later. 

It was the fall of 2017, and Carla was at the Weston Historical Museum, meeting a friend who had asked her to come by.

“I look around and I see this display all about African Americans in Weston,” says Carla. “And there was a little placard there, framed. And it said there were 400 African Americans buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery with no markers. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe we had lived there all that time and did not know that.”

Carla immediately sprung into action, She ran home to get her husband, Bill, a retired pastor who was home watching Sunday football. They went to the cemetery and saw the placard noting the unmarked graves near the graveyard’s entrance.

“And so I said, ‘We gotta do something about this,’” says Carla. “I didn’t know what to do but we had to do something.”

Carla still gets emotional when thinking about how long those buried at Laurel Hill were without gravestones. 

“Oh, it just makes me cry to talk about it now,” says Carla. “I just could not believe that that was true — that they laid there all those years and nobody did anything about it. It's hard to swallow.”

Carla spoke to Paul Norman, the president of the Laurel Hill Cemetery board, about making a memorial to those buried without markers. He referred her to Byrd Memorial Company in Atchison, and they got a quote of $9000 to put all 400 names on a memorial. So Carla got to work raising money.

Meanwhile, Carolyn passed away in February 2018. And although she never lived to see a memorial of the names she worked so hard to uncover, one of her family’s legacies, the Weston Chronicle, wrote an article about raising money for the monument to those buried at Laurel Hill based on research from her book. Angela Hagenbach saw that article. 

Angela was raised in Kansas City. Prior to researching her ancestry, her primary relationship with Weston was riding on her husband’s motorcycle through the rolling hills of Weston or taking her children to the town’s many pumpkin patches and apple orchards. But in 2013, she started to get curious about her family’s history. Angela’s mother passed away in 1988 and never mentioned the family’s history in Weston, so she only had historical records to guide her. 

“My sister and I were up here, pounding the pavement, trying to find evidence of our ancestors, and we went to this place called Pasttimes,” says Angela. Angela says the woman taking their order at the restaurant asked if they were visiting. “We told her, ‘Yeah, we’ve got ancestors here.’ She says, ‘Well, you might want to look at this book,’ and she gave us Carolyn's book. And I opened it up to the little tiny announcement of my mother's parents getting married. And we almost fell out of our chairs.”

One of Angela’s ancestors is Dinah Robinson, an enslaved woman whose family was brought to Weston in the 1830s or 1840s by Rev. J.B. Wright. Dinah eventually bought her family’s freedom from Wright on January 10, 1859, and would later go on to own multiple properties in Weston. Her name is included in Carolyn’s book in a newspaper excerpt from the Kansas City Times:

“March 26, 1887: Mrs. Dinah Robinson, an aged colored lady of Weston, Mo., arrived in this city yesterday to visit friends. She was a slave before the war and paid $3,000 for her liberty, $5,000 for that of her husband, $300 for her son and $500 for her daughter. She earned the money by washing and is now owner of a comfortable home in Weston. A minister is authority for this.”

Dinah is listed among the names of the dead in Carolyn’s book. She was buried on February 22, 1895, in what was known as the Colored Section of Laurel Hill Cemetery. In 2018, her grave was unmarked, but Carla was working to change that and Angela wanted to help.

“When she heard about the monument through the Western Chronicle, she called me and you know, we struck up a friendship right there,” says Carla, discussing how she first met Angela. “And she was so excited because this gave her an opening for the work that she had been doing about Weston’s Black community for years, and that was great.”

Angela and Carla began working together. The money for the Laurel Hill monument was raised quickly from donations, and the monument was purchased and installed. Both women spoke at the unveiling ceremony on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2020. 

“I've never done anything like that before,” says Carla. “I never made any kind of speeches. I would get freaked out if I had to get up in front of the church. For me to be able to do that took the power beyond.”

With the unveiling of the memorial, Angela’s ancestors would once again have names on their graves. 

“I feel a visceral connection to them,” says Angela. “I already did, you know, because I knew that they were there, but to see their names printed on this black granite, which signals permanence, that was very, very touching to me. My people are on there. I don't think I have the words but I feel as though they're happy that they're no longer forgotten.”

The memorial, now known as the African American Monument, was unveiled in 2020, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the coming months, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the country would once again confront its history with racism. Angela had been doing work for years to uncover Weston’s Black history, and it seemed that, with the national conversations happening and the monument installed, Weston was ready to confront its Black heritage that had been largely overlooked. 

In 2021, Weston held a Juneteenth Heritage Jubilee commemoration and would do so again in 2022, put together by Angela and others. Angela formed the Black Ancestors Awareness Campaign of Weston and published a brochure with a Weston Black heritage walking and driving tour. The pamphlet includes a newly-dedicated space, the Dinah Robinson Courtyard, which features a fountain and the entrance to a city park, on land that Angela’s ancestor, Dinah, once owned. 

Angela has many plans in uncovering Weston’s Black heritage and having it recognized in the town, including inclusive murals and guided tours. Angela and Carla were both approached about an exhibit at the new KCI Airport, and the Laurel Hill monument will be included in an installation about the area’s history called “Pathway to Healing.” Angela is also working on a set of historical fiction novels based on her family’s history in the area called “Folks of Weston.”

And though Angela isn’t necessarily into traditional burials, she feels a connection to her people at Laurel Hill Cemetery. 

"I was never much into cemeteries due to the ecological disruption, but I now understand the value," says Angela. "I want a green burial to replenish earth's nutrients, but I want a marker in Laurel Hill."

You can find a copy of the Weston Black heritage walking and driving tour at the Weston Historical Museum, Weston City Hall, Platte County Visitors Bureau, and the Weston Chamber of Commerce. You can read more about Carolyn, Carla, and Angela’s work at the Weston Historical Museum and you can get more information about the Black Ancestors Awareness Campaign by emailing Angela at baac1837@gmail.com.

“I just could not believe that that was true to that they laid there all those years — all those years and nobody did anything about it. It's hard to swallow.” - Carla Sutton

"To see their names printed on this black granite, which signals permanence, that was very, very touching to me. My people are on there. I don't think I have the words but I feel as though they're happy that they're no longer forgotten.” Angela Hagenbach

  • Angel Hagenbach in front of the courtyard named for her ancestor, Dinah Robinson