In March, a Nebraska high school teacher and four history students traveled to Davenport to research a former slave buried in Oakdale Memorial Gardens.
The class was working on a project about the Underground Railroad and believed the man had escaped to freedom with the help of the famous anti-slavery network.
Once the researchers got here, they discovered there were many more former slaves who had escaped to freedom and were buried in the cemetery at 2501 Eastern Ave.
Through their research involving Oakdale, the Putnam Museum and the Davenport Public Library, 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.
Finding so many ex-slaves buried in Oakdale "was one of the greatest discoveries I've ever made," said Barry Jurgensen, the social studies teacher who began the class research project five years ago and carries it over from year to year.
"We never find a cemetery with so many African-Americans," he said in a telephone interview. "It's really amazing. Most cemeteries did not issue headstones to African-Americans during that time, about 1890 to the 1920s."
The class came to Davenport to research the story of Milton Howard who, 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.
Howard became a possible research topic 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 told him, " 'No, but we do have a Milton Howard, and he has a significant story,'" Jurgensen said.
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.
"It was almost fate that I found these people," Jurgensen said.
Williams said she knew the Howard story because of previous research that volunteers had done for public programs the cemetery periodically hosts about people buried there.
The history students got leads on others from Williams, then took that list to the Putnam, where they found newspaper clippings about African-Americans dating to the 1850s.
The final stop was the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center at the Davenport library.
Jurgensen has high praise for everyone who helped him, and for the history of Davenport itself.
"Davenport has an incredible wealth of history ... that has been preserved," he said.
Jurgensen expects to continue his class research into the foreseeable future.
"It's scary to me to think that some of these stories might be lost, might be forgotten, if we don't go out and do it," he told the newspaper in Arlington, Neb., for a story it did about the project.