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It is truly a strange and beautiful world when costumed dogs can parade through a graveyard in 2019 to raise funds for children who died in state custody over a hundred years ago in Lansing’s Boys Vocational School.
“Everybody deserves an identity. Had these boys survived, one of them could’ve been a mayor or a governor or at least a family member. They deserve that respect,” said Nancy Parsons-Mahlow, Eastside Neighborhood Organization president and Boys Vocational School researcher.
In conjunction with the nonprofit Friends of Lansing’s Historic Cemeteries, Parsons-Mahlow hopes to raise around $10,000 to cover the cost of inscribing and manufacturing individual markers for 60 children who died from 1900 to 1933 at the school.
Currently, the bodies of the children are in Mount Hope Cemetery arranged in a “V” shape under one marker installed by the state in the 1950s. When constructed, it didn’t have any names attached and simply reads “Boys Vocational School Memorial” with an inscription from St. John 11:25.
Parsons-Mahlow raised $1,700 in 2005 to etch the names of the 61 boys in the state’s marker. It was a step in the right direction, but wasn’t enough, she said.
Of the 61 boys buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, the only individual marker is for Richard McKimmy and was paid for by his relatives.
Opened in 1856, the Boys Vocational School was a formidable brick building that had a capacity of 400 inmates.
It spanned 300 acres and encompassed the area between Pennsylvania Avenue, Saginaw Street, Marshall Street and Jerome Street.
The National Guard Armory, Lansing Catholic High School, Eastern High School and a large chunk of the Eastside neighborhoods sit within its former grounds.
It closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1973.
While rumors that bear likeness to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” still swirl, most causes of death for the boys are listed from illnesses like diphtheria, pneumonia, measles, tuberculosis and typhoid fever.
Parsons-Mahlow first heard about the story from a City Pulse article highlighting spooky Halloween sites in Lansing.
“When I started doing the research and found out they were all buried here, it broke my heart because there is nothing here. There was no names or nothing. These boys have no identity. You wouldn’t know there are 61 graves here,” Parsons-Mahlow said.
Contrary to some beliefs, not all inmates were juvenile delinquents.
“With a lot of them, the parents would give them up to the state because they had no money for medical help and no way of treating them,” Parsons-Mahlow said. “One boy was put in because he stole $1.25. Another stole rice cakes, pork and a five pound bag of flour.”
For some time, the school employed 13 “cottage families” composed of a department head and a teacher, to tend to 50 boys each
According to a schedule from 1902, boys would go to school for four and a half hours, work for another four and a half hours and have five hours of recreation and meal time before lights out.
During work hours, the school taught tailoring, carpentry, shoemaking, printing, baking, painting and farming to inmates.
Inmates were released to the general population when they turned 18.
When the effort to make individual gravestones fell short in 2005, Friends of Lansing’s Historic Cemeteries President Loretta Stanaway was disappointed.
“It has been on our radar ever since. If we ever get an opportunity to do something about the boys, we will do it,” Stanaway said.
As part of its annual fundraiser, The Friends of Lansing’s Historic Cemeteries holds a unique event in the Fratcher Memorial Garden every Spring.
It’s done Shakespeare in the cemetery and a barbershop quartet to raise funds in the past.
The “Doggie Easter Parade Costume Contest” was an idea suggested by one of the organization members. Judges will rank dog costumes on creativity and originality.
“We all agreed this is where we want to go. Even if it took a couple of years or people adopting markers, we wanted to get going and start making a difference.”
With thousands of dollars on the line, Stanaway proposes a valid question asking the State to fund markers for the wards who died in its custody.
“I wouldn’t rule out getting the state involved, but it is highly unlikely,” she added.
Both Stanaway and Parsons-Mahlow agree that the worst thing government officials could say is “Sorry, we don’t have any money.”
Any leftover money from the proposed $10,000 will be used toward landscaping around the site.
For those unable to make donations in person, checks can be sent to Friends of Lansing Cemeteries.
“This is long enough ago where in a lot of cases there are no family members left in this area," Stanaway said.
"So if family is not left, who is going to step in and do it? We are.”
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/LansingCemeteries
Doggie Easter Parade Costume Contest
Sunday, April 28
3:00 to 4:30 p.m.
Mount Hope Cemetery
1709 E Mt. Hope., Lansing