Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Souls of Black Folk -- The tragedy of Burr Oak Cemetery

Two dozen ancestors. Two dozen that I could count off the top. Probably more.

My Mother, Elizabeth. My maternal Grandmother, Louise. My maternal Great-Grandmother, Mama House. Her son, my Uncle Joe, a World War I veteran. Three of Uncle Joe's brothers -- Uncle Willie, Uncle Steve and Uncle George; two of his sisters, Aunt Angeline and Aunt Maz. Aunt Big Mama and her sister, Aunt Lil. Lil's husband, Uncle Allen -- a high school janitor who spoke three languages and read the classics for fun.

My paternal Grandmother, Mama Sweetie. Her three sisters, Aunt Annie Mae, Aunt Mattie and Aunt Gertrude, a WAC who traveled the world and was an equestrienne. Their father, my paternal Great-Grandfather Papa Levi, who "came north" to Chicago in search of a better life for his girls. My nephew's father, Big DuFray. Eunice. Corrine. Idella. Carrie Mae. Maternal cousins. Paternal cousins. Lots of them.

My childhood friend, Julie.

They are all there.

I sat disbelieving when I first heard there was a gravedigging scheme on Chicago's outskirts, with as many as 300 disinterred bodies, caskets and all, dumped into a mass grave and their plots resold and refilled for profit.

I collapsed into a slow-burning cry as I started calling the names of those ancestors...remembering where they were buried -- some since the 1930s -- and whether they had headstones or not. I kept coming back to my Mother. My Mother. My Mother. Ma. Mommy. My sweet, sweet Mommy who died unexpectedly in 2000 just 42 days after her own mother and is buried near my grandmother.

I remembered my extreme reservations about burying my Mother at Burr Oak in the first place. I remembered how shocked and disappointed I was the first time I saw the condition of her grave and the unpaved, uneven, poorly maintained, dusty road it took to get there. I remembered thinking that the grave in front of hers was too close and didn't seem to be anywhere near a casket length apart. So many nagging questions about the maintenance and management of this place that went unanswered. Nagging questions that I took to higher authorities to no avail. So many nagging questions that I finally made my peace with the bodies and souls of my Mother and Grandmother, and I stopped visiting Burr Oak altogether.

I thought about all of that. And then I got mad.

Because as I looked at the mugshots of the accused -- a cemetery manager and three workers, all African-American and all now facing felony charges of dismembering human bodies -- I wondered: just exactly what kind of trifling, gutbucket, soulless and depraved negro do you to be to do such a thing?

Who digs up the graves of their own people, dumps the bodies like roadkill and then resells the plots for profit?

The same people who shoot into crowded CTA buses and kill honors students. The same people who shoot in broad daylight in residential neighborhoods and kill little girls washing their dogs on the side of the house. The same people who kill 2-year-olds in isolated fields.

We don't even value our own lives; it stands to follow that we wouldn't respect our dead.

Carolyn Towns, a Burr Oak manager and the alleged ringleader of the scheme, is old enough to remember a time when Burr Oak and Lincoln Cemetery (where another slew of relatives are buried) were the only places where Black people could be buried here. For all we know, she might well have kin buried there herself.

Instead of honoring the history of Burr Oak, Towns and her cronies chose to desecrate it. She earned herself $300,000, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart -- and a trip to the psych ward where she sits while awaiting court.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of scores of African-Americans whose history in Chicago dates back to the early 20th century, their bones were discarded in a pile, much like a heap of Lem's rib tips.

Instead of honoring Burr Oak as the final resting spot of notable African-Americans like Dinah Washington, Willie Dixon, Noble Drew Ali, Otis Spann, Negro League baseball players, Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson, jazz musician Malachi Favors, and, of course, Emmett Till, they dumped Burr Oaks' dead into a human landfill.

We survived the Middle Passage for this?

Towns even set up a bogus Emmett Till "memorial fund" and pocketed money from that too. She rolled the dice and profited from our long-dead but never forgotten.

But we have never, never forgotten. More than 2,000 people flooded the gates at Burr Oak on Thursday to try to make sense of this tragedy and learn the status of their loved ones. From what I understand, most didn't get very much information. Neither did I when I called the 800 number set up by the Cook County sheriff's office. My dad and other relatives are planning to go out there on Friday to try to sort things out in person but he has already warned that we should manage our expectations.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. This incident is not just about the four who got caught. The reality is they profited as much from their own desperate greed as they did from the chronically poor management and oversight from out-of-state owners and law enforcement who, for years, have turned a deaf ear to maintenance complaints and other legitimate regulatory issues and reported improprieties until they couldn't any ignore it any longer. Despite the best efforts of many, nobody cared all that much about the "Black" cemetery until it was time to show off the grave of Emmett Till or someone else "famous" who was buried there.

Someone must pay for these unearthed souls. Someone must pay for the double-stacked graves, and bones and skulls piled up and strewn about the earth like a ghoulish trash heap.

We must hold them accountable for what they have done. We must hold them accountable for my two dozen ancestors and many, many more.

It ain't over.

Seeking Justice,


  1. Wow! This is my first time hearing about this story. So sad and disgusting at the same time. How could any humane person do such a thing? They all need to pay and pay dearly. CREEPS!

    My heart goes out to you and your famiy as well as all others affected by these asinine scheme.

  2. This is so sad, how could folks do this. This reminds me of Ray Brent Marsh, the man in Georgia who owned the creamatorium and decided he didn't need to creamate bodies, but rather just let them lay around the property. Just sickening that these folks thought they could profit from something like this. Surely they thought someone would have figured it out sooner or later?