One of the oldest cemeteries in Chicago is Oak Woods Cemetery, which was founded in 1854, but started burying people in 1860. Located in the South Side of Chicago, it used to be outside of Chicago’s boundaries, but that changed as the city grew. What I enjoyed most about my visit there was discovering the diverse range of people buried in it.
When visiting an American cemetery, one of the most valuable websites is Findagrave.com. It is basically a cemetery database. Anybody with an account can add graves to it. Some people actually add graves to it for fun, since it is an invaluable resource for genealogical research. The more famous the cemetery, the more likely most, if not all, of its graves have been added to it. What is even more amazing is that for famous graves, people often add photos and coordinate locations, so that you can easily find a specific grave using your GPS. Before visiting Oak Woods Cemetery, I researched which famous people were buried there, and then used Findagrave and my phone’s GPS to find them.
Perhaps what makes Oak Woods Cemetery most unique is that, according to Rick Kogan’s May 31, 2013 article in the Chicago Tribune, it contains the largest known mass grave in the Western Hemisphere. Known as the Confederate Mound, this mass grave contains the bodies of approximately 4,200 Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War. The reason why these Southern troops were buried in the North is because they were prisoners of war living in a military prison in Chicago called Camp Douglas. The conditions at the camp were terrible, however, a smallpox epidemic caused the deaths of most of the Confederate soldiers buried in the mass grave. These soldiers’ bodies were actually relocated to Oak Woods Cemetery after the Civil War, because, according to the National Park Service, the U.S. Government had to close their original burial place, due to flooding.
In 1895, an ex-Confederate group in Chicago erected a monument over Oak Woods’ Confederate mass grave. In response, the following year, a Southern abolitionist erected a cenotaph (empty tomb in honor of a person or group) at Oak Woods in honor of Southern abolitionists. Oak Woods also has a smaller monument over a mass grave of Union soldiers.
Ironically, Oak Woods not only houses dead Confederate troops, but also some famous African Americans. My favorite person buried at Oak Woods is the Olympic running champion, Jesse Owens. He famously represented the United States in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, where he beat a German runner, and thus disproved Hitler’s belief in the superiority of the “Aryan” race. Other famous African Americans buried at Oak Woods include Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African American mayor, and Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights activist.
The diversity of Oak Woods Cemetery does not end with Confederate soldiers and Civil Rights activists. Not far from the Confederate Mound is a separate Jewish cemetery. However, it is maintained by several synagogues instead of by Dignity Memorial, which maintains the rest of the cemetery. Sadly, because of the huge expense of maintaining graves, and because the Jewish cemetery is older, the graves are in poor condition.
Last but not least, another famous person buried at Oak Woods Cemetery is Enrico Fermi. He is the Italian scientist who created the first nuclear reactor, meaning that he helped create the atomic bomb.
Oak Woods Cemetery clearly shows that once we are dead, we are all truly equal, no matter what notions we may have about it while we are still alive. If only people could get along in life as they do in death.
You may also be interested in my post about Graceland Cemetery.
Sources and Further Reading
“Confederate Mound at Oak Woods Cemetery Chicago, Illinois.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/national_cemeteries/Illinois/Confederate_Mound_Oak_Woods_Cemetery.html (accessed May 29, 2020).
“It Tells His Life Story: Abolitionist Shaft in Oakwoods Erected by T.D. Lowther”. Chicago Tribune. June 9, 1896.
American Experience: Jesse Owens. Directed by Laurens Grant. Boston: WGBH, 2012.
Kogan, Rick. “Camp Douglas Effort Stirs Ghosts of the Civil War.” Chicago Tribune. May 31, 2013. https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-xpm-2013-05-31-ct-ae-0602-kogan-sidewalks-20130531-story.html (accessed May 29, 2020).
“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Dignity Memorial. https://www.dignitymemorial.com/funeral-homes/chicago-il/oak-woods-cemetery/6248 (accessed May 29, 2020).
“Oak Woods Cemetery.” Find A Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/173554/oak-woods-cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).
“Oakwoods Cemetery.” Jewish Genealogical Society of Illinois. https://jgsi.org/OakOakwoods-Cemeterywoods-Cemetery (accessed May 29, 2020).