It was an honor that was years in the making on Tuesday for one special local hero.
On Aug. 3, 1939, John Harris — who served in the latter part of the 19th Century as the first Black firefighter with the Kokomo Fire Department — died and was buried on a small plot of land at Crown Point Cemetery, just north of Carter Street.
And for 82 years, no one but cemetery record keepers even knew where Harris’ final resting place was, as there was no headstone or grave marker highlighting the exact location.
But that’s not the case anymore, thanks to a group of local historians and first responders.
It all started earlier this year when KFD Division Chief Glenda Myers was doing a bit of background research on Harris and went out to the cemetery to look for his burial site.
After discovering that there was no physical marker, Myers said she reached out to local painter and Indiana University Kokomo Financial Aid Counselor and VA Certifying Official JC Barnett III about possibly doing a fundraiser to finance a headstone.
Barnett III — who had painted a portrait of Harris and uploaded it to his social media page — was all in, he said.
“But then sometime later, I was having a meeting with Mayor (Tyler) Moore, and in that meeting was Kokomo Police Department Chief Doug Stout. Chief Stout, we all know his family and their history with the funeral business, and he felt what I was saying in his heart. … So his family, they took it upon themselves to finance the headstone.”
Stout, who was in attendance during Tuesday’s ceremony, said that it was the least his family could do.
“This was something that my family, the Stout family, wanted to do to honor an individual who served this city,” Stout said, “and so we contacted the great people of Caldwell Monument Company, who helped get it done. … To me, it was a shame that we had somebody that served this community, especially during that time, whom for whatever reason did not have a headstone. So this ceremony really means a lot.”
It meant a lot for Barnett III too, who spoke at Tuesday’s event.
“It’s tremendously important that individuals like John Harris are recognized for exactly who they were,” he said. “They were monumental figures that lived in a very difficult time as African-Americans, and they did extraordinary things. Being the first Black firefighter on the KFD means a lot. That’s inspiration to a lot of people. Stories like his do that. History does that. Good things come from good stories, and that’s the case with Harris.”
Kokomo resident Celestine Johnson — whose family did the genealogy research into Harris — agreed with Barnett III, saying that she’s also sure there are more stories like Harris’ that are out there to be told.
“We have to know that there were and are Black heroes in our own community,” she said, “that there are those people who stepped out and stepped up in order to better the community. … And I hope that he (Harris) knows that we in this community are still proud of him and are proud of his willingness to serve the community as a trailblazer.”
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