Student enlightens public about Wichita history with cemetery tour

On a slightly gloomy, overcast Saturday with the omnipresent threat of rain, the last place most people might want to be is a cemetery. 

But Barb Myers, a Wichita State graduate student in the local and community history program, would not want to be anywhere else.

Myers was at Highland Cemetery — just down the road from WSU’s main campus on Hillside — over the weekend to educate a crowd of about 100 people about the early history of the city she calls home. The cemetery dates back to 1868, two years before Wichita was designated a city.

Myers said her two favorite things are researching and teaching, so cemetery tours give her an opportunity to do both. This was her fifth tour, the next one scheduled for the fall. Tours are free and open to the public, but donations are accepted.

Highland is no longer an active cemetery, as lots have not been sold since the city assumed control of the land in 1982. Families who purchased plots before then still bury their kin there on occasion, but the cemetery’s status made Myers’s job more difficult.

“There wasn’t a lot of paperwork out there,” Myers said. “So finding the information was just sort of piecemeal here and there.”

Familiar names like Mead and Murdock show up at Highland, but some of the lesser-known names are just as notable. The cemetery’s first recorded burial, 5-year-old Albert Lewellen, was the son of Doc Lewellen, Wichita’s first shop owner.

Another standout headstone is that of Frank H. Allen, whose unique epitaph (“First white child born in Wichita”) is perhaps a sign of the times. Allen was born and died in 1870, at the age of two months.

Visitors can also find the grave of Hattie Vigus, Wichita’s first female resident. It is also the final resting place of Sidney Toler, who famously played the popular character Charlie Chan in 22 movies from 1938-46.

Myers said she believes the early history of Wichita is not discussed enough in depth, and that a lot can be learned from those days.

“To know how diverse we really, really were, we were founded by Germans, we were founded by African-Americans, we were founded by English and Germans and Scandinavians,” Myers said. “There is so much to learn from our founding that I think we could benefit from today.”

WSU history professor Jay Price also attended. He said he sees activities like cemetery tours as an accessible way for Wichita residents to learn about their city outside an academic context. 

“The academic world and the larger community sort of work in parallel, they work in their own circles,” Price said. “A lot of academic history writing tends to be written for other academics.”

Many of the people highlighted in Myers’s tour were ordinary citizens. They were shopkeepers, attorneys and other kinds of people who do not usually make it into history textbooks.

That aspect of the tour (and history itself) is appealing to Price. It’s a way for the average resident to learn about people who are not notable.

“We talk about history as if it’s about great, important people or interpersonal processes,” Price said. “But in fact, history is about ordinary people making ordinary decisions.”

On the same note about historical marginalization, cemeteries are a way to teach about people of color who made their mark. For example, in Maple Grove Cemetery (across the street from Highland), there is a special section devoted to members of the United States Colored Troops, black soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

“There’s all these layers that we are just starting to get ahold of and understand,” Price said. “There are so many people and populations in Wichita that are hidden in plain sight, and it’s worth talking about them a lot more.”

Wichita resident Evelyn Neier said she enjoyed seeing the unique, ornate tombstones belonging to many of those at Highland. She also found the stories of Wichita’s early citizens inspiring.

“I think it tends to put things in perspective and it tells of people that, really, were leaders in the community, that stepped out and helped found the city,” Neier said. “That should encourage all the rest of us to be a little more progressive, start new businesses and start new enterprises.”

Those who are interested in following Myers’s research can join her public Facebook group “Wichita history from my perspective.”