Ferncliff Cemetery to celebrate Black American history at Juneteenth tours

‘We do this tour with the idea of uniting our community,’ organizer says.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The Ferncliff Cemetery will host three trolley tours highlighting Black Americans interred there who were influential in the history of Springfield and the surrounding areas later this month in celebration of Juneteenth.

The tours, which will be held on June 20 at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., will be led by Paul “Ski” Schanher, who will talk about noteworthy Black Springfielders buried at the cemetery since its opening more than 150 years ago.

Marilyn Knize, Ferncliff Cemetery family services coordinator, said the tour will celebrate the city’s rich history and demonstrate the importance of the Juneteenth federal holiday, which many Black Americans consider their Independence Day, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

“The history of this community in terms of African American heritage is very important, partly because it was such an active stop or place on the Underground Railroad, so there’s a lot of historical people that were associated with that in particular — both Black and white that were heavily involved in the abolition movement,” Knize said.

The tour is part of a series of tours this year, which were just reinstated from before the COVID-19 pandemic. Some historical figures on this tour were featured on previous tours, like one recognizing influential women for Mother’s Day, and will be part of future ones, Knize said.

Schanher said some influential Springfielders, such as Johnny Lytle, a vibraphonist who performed with famous musicians like Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong, and James Burch, the first Black police chief in Springfield, will be featured on the tour.

“A guy by the name of Lionel Hampton called him, ‘The greatest vibes in the world,’” Schanher said.

Sully Jaymes, the city’s first Black lawyer and an activist for civil rights, will also be featured on the tour, Schanher said. Jaymes opened his practice in 1903 and represented mostly Black clients, exonerating several people of crimes for which they were wrongly accused.

Knize said the newly refurbished trolley can hold about 28 people comfortably, and the tours will last for about one hour and 15 minutes with some wiggle room.

Schanher said there is a racial divide in the U.S., including in Springfield, so he hopes that the tour will act as a unifier.

“No question about it: white supremacy does rule in many areas in our country, and that’s just abhorrent,” Schanher said. “Even in Springfield there is some divisiveness to some degree ... So we do this tour with the idea of uniting our community when it comes to racial relationships.”

The cemetery is grateful for the opportunity to educate the community and show areas that people may not have known about before, Knize said. She said by having monthly tours that focus on one topic rather than tours that are more of an overview of people at the cemetery, tour guides can talk more about each person’s impact and the community can learn more about specific subsets of people, like industrialists, veterans, artists and more.

The tours are free but require reservations, which can be made by calling the Ferncliff officer during regular business hours at 937-322-3491.

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