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On Lincoln Cemetery's sacred grounds, Springfield's Black veterans, families found dignity in burial

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery is one of the sites on the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail.
Lincoln Memorial Cemetery Facebook/Used with permission
Lincoln Memorial Cemetery is one of the sites on the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage Trail.

Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, at the intersection of Chestnut Expressway and Barnes Avenue, is one of the sites along the Springfield-Greene County African American Heritage trail.

“At birth and at death, particularly in the era of segregation, we were segregated. And so Lincoln Cemetery existed as a cemetery to for Black people to be buried and to have those family plots and to honor [them] with an appropriate location,” said Lyle Foster, a Springfield businessman and community leader who spearheaded the heritage trail.

There are an estimated 1,200 graves here, according to the heritage trail’s website.

It was founded in 1919, but some of the gravestones have dates as early as 1850—indicating that several of the people buried here were likely born as enslaved people, before the U.S. Civil War.

Before this cemetery was established, some of Springfield’s Black residents were buried in the public Hazlewood Cemetery—but since Jim Crow laws stipulated that Black and White people were not to be buried next to one another, African American graves there were separated by a fence. But Lincoln was created as a private cemetery where Springfield’s African Americans could be laid to rest in dignity—with family plots and on their own terms.

“My people are buried in Lincoln Cemetery. My mother, my father, my grandmother is buried there,” said Norma Bland Duncan of Springfield, now 82 years old.

“And I know when I was going to the cemetery with my family, it was an all-day event. We'd go out there and we'd decorate. And my dad would take a sickle and shears, and I can still picture my dad dusting the tombstones with a with a whisk and everything like that because you did your own maintenance and cleaning of the graves,” Duncan said.

Today, Lincoln Cemetery is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, run by a board of citizens dedicated to its upkeep. Springfield couple Carolyn and Jack Hembree are on the board.

Carolyn says many military veterans are buried here. Their graves are decorated each Veterans Day.

“And we're hoping to get the money to clean the ancient gravestones that are badly in need of cleaning,” Hembree said.

Although it’s a historically Black cemetery, Hembree says people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds can be buried here.

WWI Springfield resident buried here: Myrl Billings

Although it’s a resting place for the dead, Lincoln Cemetery is very much a living testament to history and the spectacular achievements of many of Springfield’s residents—even though their names have not historically been honored on par with their White counterparts.

One of those individuals is Myrl Billings. He volunteered to serve in the United States Army in World War One. He became part of the legendary 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Again, here’s board member Carolyn Hembree.

“And they fought with the French because the American army was segregated. And when the regiment got to the war zone, General Pershing didn't know what to do with them. Because they were fighters. They weren't people that took care of the mules or did the heavy lifting. They were soldiers, and the French said they would be happy—the British turned them down—but the French said they would be delighted to have them, and they fought all through the war. The 369th is renowned for its fierce fighting and its record is amazing. It's well known,” Hembree said.

That young Springfield soldier, Myrl Billings and his regiment are memorialized in the Kansas City World War One Museum. And Billings, individually, was recognized by a deeply grateful nation of France for his stark heroism in combat.

“And they fought so bravely that the French awarded the Croix de Guerre, the equivalent of our Congressional Medal of Honor to the unit, to the whole regiment. And then they selected a few soldiers who had fought. Myrl Billings and two of his companions left their safe space in the trench and went out and destroyed a German machine gun installation. And that, I think, was one of the reasons that that Myrl got his second Croix de Guerre,” Hembree said.

That valiant World War One soldier, Myrl Billings, would not live long after returning home to Springfield. According to his obituary and the American Legion, he died in 1920 from the effects of German gas attacks. He was 23.

Billings was laid to rest here at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, where his grave is decorated with two flags year-round: one is the Star-Spangled Banner, and the other is the tri-color flag of France.