Vice President Charles Curtis’ family cemetery in Topeka is in disarray

Charles Curtis campaigned to outlaw lynching, introduced the first proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and was elected the first Native American Vice President.

When Chris Pascale, an author from Long Island, New York, saw the condition of the final resting place of several of Curtis’ closest relatives in North Topeka, he was shocked.

Most of the headstones are broken at the private, remote Curtis Family Cemetery, noted Pascale, who is writing a biography of Curtis.

The tiny cemetery appeared to be in a “state of disarray” and some fences around it appeared to have been damaged and replaced with barbed wire, Pascale said.

“It’s an insult,” he said of the condition of the cemetery. “And by insulting Charles Curtis’ incredible legacy, we are insulting ourselves.”

Most of the headstones at the Curtis Family Cemetery in North Topeka are damaged in some way, Bob Morgan pointed out Thursday.  Several close family members of Topekan Charles Curtis, the nation's 31st Vice President, are among those buried on the private property.

Editorial staff:The story of Charles Curtis is important to Topeka

Where is Curtis Family Cemetery?

But the Curtis Family Cemetery is not being ignored, says Bob Morgan.

The Topeka man began devoting his time and effort to working on improving his looks last fall.

The inauguration earlier this year of Kamala Harris, a black woman who is the nation’s second vice president of color, brought Curtis, her first, to increased public attention.

Curtis died in 1936 at the age of 76. He is buried with his wife Anna in Topeka Cemetery.

Topekan Charles Curtis, the nation's 31st Vice President, and his wife Anna are buried in Topeka Cemetery.

But Curtis’ parents and a couple of his grandparents are buried in the Curtis Family Cemetery, also known as Curtis Cemetery.

The private cemetery is north of where NW Harrison Street dead-ends, about three blocks north of its intersection with NW Topeka Boulevard.

Soldier Creek and the Soldier Creek Trail both pass near the cemetery.

Who owns the Curtis family cemetery?

The memorial to William Curtis and Ira Curtis, grandfather and uncle of Vice President Charles Curtis, can be seen in the Curtis Family Cemetery in North Topeka, where the obelisk that used to stand on it now lies on the ground.

Morgan said he began work at the cemetery last fall after noticing that it had been “completely neglected and appeared to have been overgrown for several years”.

Morgan said he received permission from the cemetery’s owner, NOTOMA, who transferred ownership some 20 years ago, to enter the cemetery and clean up its overgrowth.

More:Charles Curtis, first VP of Color, takes the spotlight at the inauguration of Kamala Harris

John Campos Jr. has been the President of NOTOMA, which stands for North Topeka On the Move Association, since 2016. The group works to increase the pride of residents in the northern region of the city.

Morgan has been “an absolute blessing” to the Curtis Family Cemetery, Campos said, adding that NOTOMA members are grateful for what he has done.

Bob Morgan helps maintain the Curtis Family Cemetery Thursday by raking leaves along the fence line there.

“He’s the epitome of what North Topecans are,” said Campos. “If something needs to be done, they step in and do it.”

NOTOMA paid for a time to maintain the cemetery grounds, but that work is now done only by volunteers, Campos said.

First up is Morgan, who was out again Thursday weeding and chopping down trees in the cemetery.

Morgan said he would like more people to get involved.

“It would be great if they could organize a group to take care of that,” he said.

Who Was Charles Curtis?

Charles Curtis, a native of Topeka, became the nation's first Vice President of Native American descent.

Charles Curtis, whose family name the cemetery bears, was born in 1860 in what is now North Topeka, Kansas Territory. Kansas joined the Union the following year.

Curtis grew up practicing law and served as Shawnee County’s attorney general from 1885 to 1889. As a Republican, he then served 14 years in the US House of Representatives and 20 years in the US Senate, representing Kansas, before becoming a running mate in 1929 as a sidekick of President Herbert Hoover.

At the end of a tenure plagued by economic depression, Hoover and Curtis left office in 1933 after losing their bid for re-election to Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner.

Who Lies in Curtis Family Cemetery?

Flowers now grow through tombstones that have been destroyed in Curtis Family Cemetery.

About 10 headstones appear to be in the Curtis Family Cemetery, listed on the Find a Grave website as the final resting place for 14 people.

Find a Grave says some of those buried there are:

  • Curtis’ mother, Helen “Ellen” Pappan Curtis, who died of illness in 1863 when she was 22 or 23 and Charles was 3.
  • Curtis’ father, Oren Arms “Captain Jack” Curtis, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and died in 1898 at the age of 68.
  • And Curtis’ wealthy paternal grandfather, William Curtis, who died in 1873 at the age of 72, and grandmother Permelia “Grandma” Hubbard Curtis, who died in 1903 at the age of 96.

Morgan said he noticed last fall that someone had broken down the obelisk that stood at the cemetery’s memorial to William Curtis and his son Ira Curtis, who both died of smallpox in 1873, and moved it.

Morgan dragged this obelisk to where it currently lies near the memorial, he said.

The graveyard saw past improvements

This photo shows Gwen Douglass Mayer with her 43-year-old husband Jeff Mayer.

Topekan Gwen Douglass Mayer asked for help cleaning up the Curtis Family Cemetery in time for Memorial Day on the Topeka History Geeks Facebook page last week.

She told The Capital-Journal her connection to the cemetery dates back to 1957 when she, her brother and her father, a concrete worker, were fishing nearby in Soldier Creek.

More:Landmark homes: the Charles Curtis House

“I was bored, so I looked around for an adventure,” Mayer said. “I found this run-down graveyard.”

Mayer said she called out to her brother and father, who came to see what she was screaming about.

“Father said, ‘My God, that’s Vice President Charles Curtis’ family gravesite,'” Mayer recalled. “We later found out it was the family plot, but not Vice President Curtis himself.”

Mayer proudly recalled how family members took steps over the years, including restoring the cemetery’s main entrance sign, repairing the fence, planting flowers, repairing a memorial, and creating concrete crosses for family members who didn’t have a marker.

This photo of Gwen Douglass Mayer was taken when she was a girl, around the time her family began improving the Curtis Cemetery in North Topeka.

“The Dignity It Deserves”

Members of Mayer’s family had been talking about making the cemetery a “family project” again when Morgan started work on it last fall, she said.

Mayer encouraged anyone interested in helping restore the Curtis Family Cemetery to contact her on Facebook Messenger.

Campos said residents can call NOTOMA at 785-350-6570 if they would like to help this organization in a way that benefits the cemetery.

“We want to give this cemetery back the dignity it deserves,” he said.

Tim Hrenchir can be reached at [email protected] or 785-213-5934.

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