CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — Two emancipated slaves are planned to be honored this June in a ceremony to install headstones at their gravesite in Oakwood Cemetery in Cuyahoga Falls.
A group of local residents put out a call for donations last year to buy headstones for John and Emily Hansparker, who came to the Akron area after they were freed, and eventually settled in Cuyahoga Falls. The graves have had no headstones for more than a century.
The Hansparker Memorial GoFundMe set a goal of $6,100, which was met soon after the fund was established.
The initiative was sparked when Jeri Wilcox Holland, then president of the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society, came across a photo of John Hansparker while creating a downtown display about slavery and abolition, with part of it dedicated to former slaves who lived in Cuyahoga Falls.
The photo shows Hansparker reading to a little girl. A second photo of Hansparker emerged on a Facebook in a post promoting a book by Ken Clarke titled “Wolves and Flax” that’s about settling the Cuyahoga Valley wilderness and the Prior family.
But information on the Hansparkers was lean, leaving many unanswered questions. To learn more about the couple, Wilcox asked Shawn Andrews, also a volunteer with the historical society, to do more digging. The work is not a project of the historical society, they said.
One looming question was the identity of a women named Helen who is buried between John and Emily. The couple married on Nov. 19, 1867, and had two children, but they didn’t survive infancy, records show. Helen’s birth and death dates show she died in her 20s.
Andrews thinks it’s possible the woman is Helen Pendleton from Hudson, who lived with the Hansparkers when they lived in Akron. With no children of their own, the couple likely treated her like a daughter, Andrews said.
Also, their deaths were close together, with Helen and Emily dying in 1906 and John in 1907.
“From what I'm seeing, the African American community of that time was very close knit in Hudson, Cuyahoga Falls and Akron,” she said.
Records also show Helen Pendleton attended Second Baptist Church in Akron, but she is not buried in the church cemetery, Andrews said. Second Baptist was formed by freed slaves and had members active in the Civil Rights Movement.
Andrews also uncovered information that shows the Hansparkers were active in the community. One obituary for John refers to him as the “Grey Goose,” who played the fiddle around town and favored a song of the same name.
The couple also helped produce plays put on by a well-known local man named Andrew Tobias, who also was formerly enslaved. John Hansparker played the fiddle for the performances.
“He was very well known in the Akron area, he was actually part of the Republican Party of that time,” Andrews said of Tobias. “People would really cheer for him to come out on stage and talk.”
In the early 1900s, Tobias produced a play titled “Gone but not forgotten: American Negro slavery as it existed before the war.”
More than 200 people attended the show in January 1901 when it was held at the Exhibition Hall in Akron, Andrews said. The same show was well-attended when it was performed at the Apollo Theater in Cuyahoga Falls located at the corner of Portage Trail and Front Street.
The show depicted the realities of slavery, Andrews said, including labor on the plantation, salves’ pastimes and amusements, and their punishments and other cruelties. It recreated scenes from the auction block and illustrated ways runaway slaves were executed.
“It's incredible to me that, at that time, the public was receptive to someone having an exhibition on this topic, someone that is a formerly enslaved person. And that John Hansparker and his wife were part of this show.”
Census records, which were hand written at the time, show John Hansparker died between the ages of 71 and 76 of dropsy, a catchall for many illnesses then, Andrews said. Emily Hansparker died of malaria and Helen of tuberculosis.
The headstones are planned to include the names of all three buried there, Andrews said. Research will be ongoing to verify Hellen’s identity and her full name.
Last year’s event took place on Juneteenth, which this year falls on Father’s Day.
The headstone unveiling event will likely take place on Saturday, June 18, Andrews said. Updates will be posted on the GoFundMe page.
Feb. 28, 2022 Editor's Note: The previous version incorrectly spelled Shawn Andrews' name. This has been corrected.