Kansas City Woman Uncovers Stories Of Anonymous Dead Buried In Leeds Cemetery
Leeds Cemetery doesn’t look like a typical cemetery. A couple of miles from the Truman Sports Complex in Kansas City, Missouri, it has noheadstones and nogreen lawns. It's just an empty field filled with dry grass and Queen Anne’s lace.
For more than half of the 20th century, though, this was Kansas City’s "potter’s field," or final resting place for the city’s unclaimed bodies — those too poor for a proper burial.
At the edge of the field by the tree line, lies a rusty marker and a bouquetof pink flowers laid by Gloria Lundy, who says she's the cemetery’s only regular visitor.
Lundy began coming here in 2008, searching for details about a grandfather she never knew.
"He was a nothing, nobody in life,” Lundy says. “Struggling. Poor as dirt."
When she discovered her grandfather’s death certificate online, her first question was, “What is Leeds?”
Finding Leeds Cemetery
No one at the city or the public library could tell her anything about the cemetery, Lundy says. It was lost to all but the people who lived near it.
“It was cleared off, wooded area around,” former Kansas City mayor pro-tem Alvin Brooks says. “The gravesite was there.”
Brooks grew up in the community of Leeds, and would play at the cemetery site as a kid.
He says there were two Leeds: the first was open from 1911 to the 1930s, while the second one — on the other side of I-435 — was open until the 1960s.
“One was for the white persons who were poor, and the other one for the black persons who were poor,” Brooks says.
Today the bodies remain, buried under a little hill between what is now a soapbox derby track and a National Guard armory. Part of the old cemetery is now underneath the Kansas City police firing range.
Lundy says prisoners at the nearby city jail were in charge of burying the corpses.
“They buried them three- to four-people deep, one on top the other,” Lundy says. “They were wrapped in newspaper and were put in these really thin, boarded coffins.”
The exact number of bodies at the cemetery is unknown, but Lundy estimates there are around 7,000.
With so many bodies buried there, she took it upon herself to remind the city about the cemetery.
"I have appointed myself the sexton of the cemetery," she says.
In that role, she has prevented the city from building a garbage dump or parking garage there, both of which were planned. When these were proposed, Lundy, along with genealogists and local historians, fought back. She took all the information she had on the cemetery and put it on the desk of Cindy Circo, who was then on the city council.
Circo was interested enough to put on a pair of hiking boots and set out with her staff to explore Leeds.
On her walk, she saw some round concrete disks made from the tops of coffee cans by one of the prisoners. He would use the disks to keep track of the bodies he buried.
"So a man with a presumably not-so-pristine life as a prisoner had enough conscience and respect for these people to keep track of them," Circo says. "And here we were as a community turned [sic] our back and didn’t care any more and possibly didn’t care at the time either.”
Through this all, Lundy has become a resource for local residents trying to find grandmothers, grandfathers, parents and children.
Helping others find their loved ones
"I did have a couple from Mississippi that came all the way back up here, because when they were very, very young, they were married and had a little baby girl, and the baby girl died at birth, and they had no money to bury her,” Lundy recalls.
Lundy was able to figure out where their child was buried based on when she passed away, giving the parents some closure.
"They went back to Mississippi very happy then, and at peace."
Marking the dead
Leeds may soon receive more infrastructure — before Cindy Circo left the City Council last year, she allocated $50,000 for putting up signs, clearing the underbrush, and possibly adding benches.
Lundy already has plans for the first official headstone in Leeds.
“It says on it ... 'Father, grandfather, you are not forgotten,’” she says.
Anna Sturla is an intern at KCUR 89.3.