Difficult history of black cemeteries revealed

July 17, 2009 5:16:48 PM PDT
What has happened at Burr Oak Cemetery may seem like an unthinkable crime. But in some historically African-American burial grounds moving remains from plots was part of the purchase agreement.To rest in peace at a historically black cemetery does not always mean forever. For untold millions of African-Americans who lived, suffered racism and died in this country, burial was the final indignity.

The situation in Alsip has unearthed some difficult memories of what happened and sometimes still happens to less fortunate black people.

Troubled by the Burr Oak scandal, Carol Priestly walked the grounds at Mount Glenwood cemetery looking for the graves of relatives. She found the plots of her mother and grandmother but understood that she'd never find the grave of her father who was buried in the same cemetery in 1941.

"Because they didn't have the money they rented it for 20 years. And then after 20 years they dug up the bones and put it in a mass burial style," said Priestly.

Founded in 1908 when racial segregation was at its worst, Mount Glenwood is the oldest black cemetery in the Chicago region. When the city's African-American population exploded during the mid 20th century's great migration, the Jim Crow graveyards that also included Burr Oak in Alsip sold hundreds of thousands of less expensive, temporary plots called 'select singles.' At the ends of their terms, it's agreed the graves can be re-opened and the bodies sometimes moved to mass, unmarked burial sites on the properties.

South Side funeral director Augustus Cage told ABC7 the non-perpetual care plots are still popular.

"Select singles are very frequently sold within cemeteries that have a large black clientele," said Cage.

A funeral industry source told ABC7 that most of the plots at Burr Oak Cemetery are outside the perpetual care section and that digging into old graves and moving remains would not be an unusual occurrence there or at most other black cemeteries.

On Thursday, Governor Quinn appointed a task force to examine for-profit burial grounds in the state. Seven of the nine members on the panel are African- American, a strong indication they'll focus on historically black cemeteries.

"Not only did we bury people's bodies there, we buried our history there," said Dr. Damon Arnold, task force member.

Funeral directors told ABC7 they suspect that many people searching for graves at Burr Oak might not realize their plots may have been limited by the contracts their ancestors signed.


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