- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - A Davenport cemetery is now recognized nationally for its connection to the Underground Railroad anti-slavery network after a group of Nebraska high school students made a surprise discovery as part of a research project.

Four students from Arlington, Nebraska, traveled to Davenport in March as part of Barry Jurgensen’s social studies class at Arlington Senior High School. Their goal was to research Milton Howard, a former slave buried in Oakdale Memorial Gardens.

Howard, as a child, was kidnapped in Muscatine County and sold into slavery in the South. He eventually escaped, joined the Union Army and settled in Davenport. He became a possible research topic in Jurgensen’s class two years ago, completely by accident, when Jurgensen called Oakdale to check on another former slave he thought might be buried there.

Office manager Deb Williams, who knew the Howard story because of previous research that volunteers had done for public programs the cemetery periodically hosts about people buried there, told him about Howard.

That was the beginning of the hunt that led to the 10 other people, including Matilda Busey, who escaped from Kentucky with her husband and nine children as the Union Army was approaching. Several of the children are buried in Oakdale.

Finding so many ex-slaves buried in Oakdale “was one of the greatest discoveries I’ve ever made,” Jurgensen said. “We never find a cemetery with so many African-Americans. It’s really amazing. Most cemeteries did not issue headstones to African-Americans during that time, about 1890 to the 1920s.”

The students compiled histories on 11 former slaves buried at the cemetery, and they nominated the grounds for inclusion on the Network to Freedom, a national registry maintained by the U.S. National Park Service for sites associated with the Underground Railroad.

In mid-September, Oakdale was accepted into the registry, the Quad-City Times reported (http://bit.ly/1vjDtzB ) on Sunday.

The registry, supported by legislation passed in 1990 and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998, hopes to educate the public, provide technical assistance for documenting, preserving and interpreting Underground Railroad history, and to create a network of historic sites, educational programs, and research and educational facilities.

The Underground Railroad was a network of people across the country who helped thousands of slaves escape to freedom, often by hiding them in homes.

Iowa has nine sites open to the public on the registry and Nebraska has six.

So far, the students at the Arlington high school have succeeded in getting 14 sites listed in Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio.

Jurgensen began the class research project five years ago and expects to continue it.

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