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Work begins in Oak Hill Cemetery to pinpoint grave sites of Black men lynched in 1882

Though a final answer is likely still a few months away, work began Monday to solve a question that originated just over 139 years ago: where are the three Black men lynched in Lawrence in the summer of 1882 buried?

Until earlier this year, that answer was nothing short of a guessing game. Pete Vinegar, Isaac King and George Robinson were buried in unmarked graves in the middle of the night after a white man was found drowned in the Kansas River, and the exact location was thought to be long lost to history.

But a chance find in the Lawrence City Clerk’s office in February turned up a chart of cemetery plots in Oak Hill’s Potter’s Field, and local historians quickly discovered Vinegar, King and Robinson’s names. One of those historians, Kerry Altenbernd, said he was able to narrow down within a matter of feet from the chart where the men were buried in an otherwise mostly empty-appearing field in the northeast corner of the cemetery.

Now, the work to actually pinpoint the men’s gravesites is underway.

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Blair Schneider, an associate researcher and science outreach manager with the Kansas Geological Survey, was on site Monday for the first day of her research to assess the field. Schneider said she’s been discussing a survey of the field with Altenbernd and others for a few years, even before the chart was discovered — but due to scheduling conflicts, and then the COVID-19 pandemic, it took until now for her work to actually begin.

“We were going to get all of the students from the (anthropology) club at KU to come out and do this as a project, and then COVID hit. This summer came up, and I could fit it in,” Schneider said. “It kind of stinks because I couldn’t work with the students like I wanted to, but I love that (Altenbernd) got some volunteers. I want this to be a community project.”

Schneider’s work began Monday morning in mapping out the area of Potter’s Field where Vinegar, King and Robinson’s graves are charted, and in the afternoon she began collecting data using a ground penetrating radar device called the MALA ProEx.

“The best analogy I have for it is to think of as I’m moving along the ground, it’s like I’m taking X-ray images of the ground. I’m not taking X-rays, but it’s kind of like that,” she said. “As this moves along, it sends radio waves into the ground and changes in the electrical properties of the ground will cause it to reflect the waves back. Then I interpret those changes on a computer later.”

Conner Mitchell / The Lawrence Times A MALA ProEx ground penetrating radar machine.

GPR technology detects changes in the soil, allowing trained researchers to decipher if there are abnormalities from what could normally be expected underground, such as buried storage tanks or power lines. Different materials underground, Schneider said, give different signatures back.

A storage tank buried underground, for example, is much larger and will send back a metallic signature that registers differently than bone, allowing for researchers to know the depth, size, and occasionally the properties of an abnormality — but not necessarily what it is. GPR is also somewhat difficult to conduct in Kansas, Schneider said, which is why after she finishes she’ll employ two other ground imaging techniques before reviewing the data.

“Kansas is mostly clay, and clay is very conductive. The conductive clay absorbs my waves, so I don’t always get a lot of signal return. It’s really give and take with this one,” she said. “GPR has antennas that emit certain frequencies, and lower frequencies have a certain wavelength. With higher frequencies, the wavelengths get shorter, which is an advantage because then we can see smaller things in the ground. But they’re not as powerful, so they’ll get sucked up by the clay more frequently.”

After GPR, Schneider will use electrical conductivity and electrical resistivity technology to conclude her survey of the field, both of which use currents to measure any abnormalities underground based on the response of the soil. It will take around two to three weeks to collect all data, and then the bulk of the survey begins when Schneider begins to analyze the information.

“For processing and interpretation I safely need two to three months. I have to go through each line and look for signatures and then make some interpretations of ‘could these be burials or not?'” she said. “The interpretation takes a really long time … that’s the bulk of it really is the interpretation.”

Anyone interested in helping with Schneider’s survey can sign up here for time slots on a handful of days between now and July 30.

“This is something we’re doing for the community, so if I can get the community involved that makes me very happy,” she said. “I’m really excited about this project, because my research aims and goals are to give back to communities. And this is a community that’s been ignored for entirely too long, so anything we can do to give back to these communities, I want to be involved in.”

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More coverage:

• July 19, 2021: Work begins in Oak Hill Cemetery to pinpoint grave sites of Black men lynched in 1882

June 7, 2021: Community event to memorialize 3 Black men lynched in 1882

April 3, 2021: Chance find in Lawrence City Hall answers a 138-year-old question: Where are the 3 Black men lynched in 1882 buried?

— Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter for The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at cmitchell@lawrencekstimes.com or 785-435-9264.

If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell@protonmail.com.

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