Carl Westmoreland, a 'fascinating' and 'dear friend,' will be laid to rest Saturday
Carl Westmoreland, who was the senior historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for the past 20 years, died March 10, two days after his 85th birthday.
I had known Westmoreland, who grew up in Lincoln Heights, since his days as a neighborhood activist in Mount Auburn in the 1980s. I have never encountered anyone with the breadth and depth of knowledge of African American history — both in this region and nationally — than this man.
A funeral service for Westmoreland will take place at noon Saturday, March 26, at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, 26 W. North Bend Rd., in Carthage. Visitation will be at the church from 10 a.m. until the time of services.
Below is a column about the extraordinary friendship between Westmoreland and Paul LaRue, a retired social sciences teacher at Washington Court House High School in Fayette County, about 70 miles north of Cincinnati.
Carl Westmoreland and Paul LaRue had one of the most unlikely friendships I have ever seen.
Westmoreland, who died March 10 at the age of 85, was a tall, stately Black man of a dignified demeanor, a man steeped in the rough-and-tumble of urban politics who devoted the final 20 years of his life to studying and preserving Black history.
LaRue, a hard-working social sciences teacher in Washington Court House, Ohio, a middle-aged white man, now retired, taught his small town and rural students to look beyond their own experiences and appreciate the culture and history of people from other times, other places.
They came together because of a passion they shared for making sure the Black men who took up arms to fight oppression in the Civil War and World War I were never forgotten.
And their passion brought them together in 2012 and 2013 at Beech Grove Cemetery, a plot of land on Fleming Road in Springfield Township, about halfway between Wyoming and Finneytown, where a number of Black veterans of World War I have been laid to rest.
LaRue had inspired his students, mostly white, to take part in an extensive search for the final resting places of Ohio's African American soldiers who served in the Civil War and World War I.
And it was Westmoreland, who was the chief historian at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, who learned of their project and steered LaRue and his students in the direction of Beech Grove Cemetery, where many of Carl's family members are buried and where he himself will be buried on Saturday.
LaRue said Westmoreland made the 140-mile round trip between Cincinnati and Washington Court House three times to talk to his students before they first came to Beech Grove to do the hard physical work of repairing and replacing veterans' broken tombstones, and, in one case, locating a Black war hero who was buried there in an unmarked grave in 1921.
"The kids were fascinated by the stories Carl told," said LaRue, who is now a member of the Ohio Board of Education. "There was no one who knew more about the history of Black veterans in Ohio than Carl and he was really eager to share what he knew."
LaRue said that once he met Westmoreland, he knew he had a friend for life.
"Carl was an icon when it came to Black history," LaRue said. "To me, though, he was like a favorite uncle. And I could listen to him talk all day. A fascinating man. A dear friend."
LaRue said he asked Westmoreland if he had ever been to Washington Court House and Fayette County before. Westmoreland, he said, had an interesting answer.
"Carl told me that as a boy growing up in Lincoln Heights there were a lot of places where Black families could not go in Cincinnati, so his dad piled the family in the car and they would drive around Ohio, visiting county seats and looking at the courthouses," LaRue said. "That's how he knew where Washington Court House was. He'd been here."
Before long, LaRue was taking groups of his students down I-71 to the Springfield Township cemetery, where they would meet up with Westmoreland and go to work on restoring graves.
The toughest challenge LaRue's students faced was their effort to locate the unmarked grave of Ludlow Luther, a Black soldier from Glendale who was killed in combat in World War I.
Luther was only 23 years old on July 15, 1918, when he was killed in action in the Champagne-Marne campaign in France. He drove a wagon and served with the 369th Regiment, the famed and highly decorated "Harlem Hellfighters," made up of African American soldiers from many states.
His remains were returned home in 1921 and buried at Beech Grove. In an unmarked grave.
"My students were shocked that there was a soldier killed in action in an unmarked grave," said LaRue. "They were determined to find him and honor him."
The students, under the watchful and admiring eye of Westmoreland, used Works Progress Administration maps from the 1930s to find Luther's grave. It was not easy, but they nailed it.
The Washington Court House students researched Luther's service record, documented his service, and petitioned the Department of Veterans Affairs for the military gravestone to which every veteran is entitled. It was shipped to Cincinnati and the students placed it in ground, 92 years after Luther's remains were buried.
On their visits to Beech Grove, Westmoreland would walk the cemetery with the students, and give them history lessons about Black veterans and their families.
"It was just so natural the way he talked to them," LaRue said. "I know something about teaching after 30 years in the classroom and to be able to hold the attention of 17- and 18-year-olds is not an easy thing to do. But Carl had the gift. He was engaging. It got the students involved."
In 2017, when I met Westmoreland and LaRue at Beech Grove to take a look at the work the students had done, Westmoreland told me that working with LaRue's students in 2012 and 2013 was a learning experience for him as well.
"These kids who did this are what America needs," Westmoreland told me. "They were dealing with families who weren't like them."
What happened at Beech Grove, Westmoreland said, gave him hope for the future.
"American youth came together here to work on something we all can relate to — the loss of a loved one," Westmoreland said. "With that kind of interaction, it makes me think we have a society that is going to live."
LaRue and Westmoreland kept in touch in the years after the Beech Grove project, although, as LaRue said, they didn’t get to see each other as often.
"I knew that if I had a question related to Black history, I could call Carl and he would have the answer," LaRue said. "He had encyclopedic knowledge."
But it is the deep friendship the two men had that LaRue will be most grateful for, especially now that Westmoreland is no longer with us.
"This is the truth," LaRue said, "I feel blessed to have known Carl Westmoreland."