North Olmsted students' diligence helps mark important place in North Olmsted history

North Olmsted students Rafel Alshakergi, Maya Elkhatib and Kameron Swanson spearheaded efforts to get a granite grave marker for a dozen African-Americans buried in historic Butternut Ridge Cemetery.

A dozen African Americans who lived in North Olmsted during the 19th Century are no longer lost in the city’s history, thanks to the diligent work by a group of eighth graders at North Olmsted Middle School.

A granite marker now sits atop where those 12 early residents are buried in Butternut Ridge Cemetery, in an area that had been just grass with no headstones or markers.

About two dozen people gathered at the cemetery Nov. 18 when the marker was unveiled. Among them were three former students of Debbie Holecko, the American history teacher and language arts teacher Claudia Bestor, who taught the eighth-grade classes when the students worked on a class project last spring and discovered the unmarked grave site.

“It’s one thing to learn and enjoy history but these students went out and made it for these people,” Holecko said.“It’s very special to see something like this happen as a result of their work. They wanted to get a problem fixed.”

The cemetery is in the 1.5-square mile Butternut Ridge Historic District and has graves dating to the 1820s Cemetery records indicate the plots were owned by N. Peake and D. Cousins, but when the students began looking into the ares, there were no markers, headstones, names or date of burial recorded for the occupants of the gravesite. Old cemetery maps and records showed, “colored.”

This upset the students and they wanted to do something about it.

Students Rafel Alshakergi, Maya Elkhatib and Kameron Swanson, who are now freshmen at North Olmsted High School, were pleased to see the people recognized and graves marked.

“We wanted to make sure they got some sort of recognition,” Rafel said. “So, we looked at a lot of information and talked to different people about what to do.”

One of those people was North Olmsted Mayor Kevin Kennedy, who attended the ceremony.

“When I talked with the students, I knew they were going to get something positive done for this,” said Kennedy. “You could tell they were very determined and focused on what they wanted to do.”

The granite marker was donated by The Johns-Carabelli Co. after employees saw coverage of the student’s work in West Life, Holecko noted.

Students wrote the words that appear on the marker. It reads, “In memory of the Peake and Cousins families. Some of the first African-American settlers in this area. No longer forgotten. May they rest in peace.”

Kameron said the project has encouraged him to look into social studies or a job where he can help people on a regular basis.

“It’s something I’d really like to do,” he said. “Helping people find information they need to know is important. It can make a difference for them in a lot of areas.”

All the students indicated there is a lot of history in North Olmsted and Northern Ohio and said they’ll continue to take an interest in it in many different ways as they move forward in school and life.

The students said the students haven’t wrapped up their work on the gravesites or in the cemetery.

“We’ll be checking on them to make sure they’re taken care of or if anything else needs to be done for them or around the cemetery,” Maya said.

Anyone with historical information regarding the Peake and Cousins families is encouraged to contact the North Olmsted Landmarks Commission at 440-777-8000 or www.north-olmsted.com as work continues to give names to the unknown people buried there.

Contact this reporter at assoceditor@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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