The story begins with a caretaker of Laurel Hill Cemetery, who, as the story goes, stumbled upon a grave beyond the realm of where he normally maintained the plots. The grave he found was of Edward Jones, a runaway slave who enlisted in the Union Army and fought during the Civil War. After more searching, another grave was found: James O. Adams, the son of a wealthy African American family, who was also a Union soldier during the Civil War. These discoveries led to a mass uncovering, by the caretaker and others, of what came to be known as “Row 19.” Though the rest of the graves were unmarked, volunteer graveyard-caretakers eventually found a list of 58 names in an old record book that had no matching gravestones, so members of Row 19 were eventually named. All members are believed to be African American.
It took ten years of time and the efforts of many volunteers to fully clean up the area so that the entirety of Row 19 was uncovered to be just as visible as the rest of the cemetery. At this time, there were 58 small, white crosses placed along Row 19 to mark the graves of those buried there. Since then, those crosses have been taken down, replaced, and eventually taken down again. Walking around Row 19, one can see the remains of some of these white crosses, half-buried under a layer of grass and weeds. Fallen over, with plants crawling across, some of the headstones in this area look similar to the white crosses, making it difficult to tell where geographically the crosses or graves belong.
Creola Woodall, initiated the uncovering of the graves alongside Suibielski, and she continues to be invested in the stories of the African American Omahan’s who are buried at Laurel Hill.
Various local news organizations covered the discovery of the graves, which lead to a citizen who privately donated the funds to build the memorial that now takes the place of the (lack of) headstones of those buried in Row 19. Woodall organized an event on July 2nd, 2011, to officially unveil the memorial and celebrate the lives of those who were forgotten.
Since then, Woodall has been researching the lives of those buried in Row 19. Specifically, Woodall has felt “spoken to” by the two Civil War Veterans, Edward Jones and James O. Adams. She has shared her work with a few other interested local groups, including the Nebraska Historical Society, students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Omaha Public School students in a project focused on African American Civil War Veterans. Currently, she is in the middle of writing a book about her experience, those buried at Laurel Hill, and the two men who constantly inspire her. She plans to call the book "Row 19."
When I interviewed Woodall about her involvement in the Row 19 Memorial, she ended her conversation with me by telling an imagined story of Edward Jones, the runaway slave who men she so admired. She explained to me how South Omaha, a separate city from Omaha proper at that time, hosted Memorial Day festivities every year to memorialize the men who fought for the Union during the Civil War. There was a parade that ran throughout South Omaha, one with floats, banners, music, and celebration among veterans and civilians. She even found documentation that Edward Jones had been a part of these festivities. The parade ended in the very same cemetery that Jones would one day be buried in, where he would be forgotten for years and years, where weeds, trees, bushes, and wildflowers would grow over his grave, causing him and those he fought for to be temporarily erased from Omaha history.
Woodall likes to imagine how Edward Jones would appear in this parade. He sat alongside his fellow soldiers, waving at the crowds of people singing along to the patriotic hymns. She envisions him standing with his veterans, likely one of few, if not the only, African American there, at the last stop in Laurel Hill. He would listen to the band as they played Taps to honor those who came before him: the ones who fought for his freedom. She then imagined what happened after Jones was gone, when his grave was no longer being maintained. The parade still came for many years, stopping, like always, to honor those who fought for freedom, but not all of them were being remembered. Jones was buried for 100 years before his grave, along with the unmarked graves, were discovered an honored once again.
In order to make up for the lost time, Woodall organized a Memorial Day service the year the Row 19 memorial was created, and she invited Omaha veterans, black and white, to participate in the service. She recognizes this as the most rewarding part of her involvement in this memorial, relishing in the fact that she now gets to tell these stories, so these people will be remembered for their contributions to Omaha and our country.