Burr Oak Cemetery
Burr Oak Cemetery is a 150-acre (0.61 km2) cemetery located in unincorporated Cook County, Illinois, adjacent to Alsip, a suburb slightly southwest of Chicago. As one of the few cemeteries focused on the needs of the African-American community, it is the final resting place of many black celebrities, including Chicago blues musicians, athletes, and other notables.
History of Burr Oak
The origins of Burr Oak Cemetery date back to when Ellis Stewart, secretary of the black-owned Supreme Liberty Life Insurance company, joined with Earl B. Dickerson, a prominent Chicago lawyer, to develop a cemetery that would meet the needs of the burgeoning African-American population in Chicago, a demographic change brought about by the great migration of blacks from the South during the early decades of the 20th century.
Stewart had located a possible site for the cemetery just outside the Chicago city limits near Alsip, Illinois. The owners of the land ultimately sold 40 acres for $50,000, $40,000 of which was loaned by the Roosevelt State Bank and the remainder raised by subscription. The new group was incorporated as the Burr Oak Cemetery Association, and a suitable corpse was found in the morgue to legally dedicate the cemetery.
Unfortunately, the Alsip townsfolk did not approve of a black cemetery next to the village and, "with the assistance of armed police", drove the burial party away. The burial party eventually returned, however, with a deputy sheriff (courtesy of Robert E. Crowe the Republican state's attorney) and was successfully able to legally dedicate Burr Oak.
During the Great Depression, the Burr Oak Cemetery Association defaulted on the mortgage. Dickerson again stepped in to help arrange for the black-owned Supreme Liberty Life Insurance company to buy the mortgage at roughly 10 cents to the dollar. The re-constituted Chicago Burr Oak Cemetery Association eventually paid off the mortgage. Dickerson later said that "saving that cemetery was one of the great achievements as a lawyer".
Burr Oak Scandal
On July 11, 2009 Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart alleged that four workers at Burr Oak cemetery dug up more than 200 graves, dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves, and resold the plots in a scheme that went back at least five years. The three men and one woman were charged with one count each of dismembering a human body and face up to 30 years in prison. They are currently free on bond and awaiting trial.
Because of the investigation, the entire cemetery was declared a crime scene by the Cook County Sheriff's Office and temporarily closed to the public. The court-assigned receiver managing the cemetery had hoped to reopen it in September, but on October 13, 2009 visiting families found the cemetery still closed, with no statement on when it would reopen. The sheriff's office set up a searchable database with photographs of most headstones. The cemetery records were in great disarray, but the usable ones were computerized and turned over to the receiver for integration into the database.
A study of the records indicated that between 140,190 and 147,568 people were buried at Burr Oak. However, the cemetery has space for a maximum of 130,000 graves, and some areas appear never to have been used for burials. After burials resumed in November 2009, some human remains were found in areas that no one knew had been used.
On May 24, 2011, a federal judge approved a plan to place the cemetery into a trust that will use about $2.6 million of a $7 million insurance settlement to renovate and run the cemetery. The judge set aside at least $50,000 for a memorial to honor those whose graves were lost or desecrated. Those who can prove they buried relatives in the cemetery will receive $100 per grave. Those whose relatives' graves were destroyed may apply for more money.
- James Kokomo Arnold (1901-1968), blues musician
- Walter Barnes, bandleader who perished with 10 members of his band in the Rhythm Night Club Fire
- Lexie Bigham (1968-1995), actor
- Ezzard Charles (1921-1975), world heavyweight boxing champion
- George "Sonny" Cohn (1925-2006), jazz trumpeter with Count Basie for 30 years
- Jimmie Crutchfield (1910-1993), All-Star Negro League baseball player
- Willie Dixon (1915-1992), blues musician and songwriter
- John Donaldson (1892-1970), star pre-Negro League baseball pitcher and barnstormer businessman
- Jodie Edwards (1895-1967), of comedy duo Butterbeans and Susie
- Carl Augustus Hansberry (1895-1946), businessman and political activist, father of playwright Lorraine Hansberry
- Pete Hill (1882-1951), Negro league baseball player elected to the Hall of Fame in 2006
- Edward Giles Irvin (1893 - 1982), founder of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.
- Inman Jackson (1907-1973), player with the Harlem Globetrotters
- Roberta Martin (1907-1969), gospel music singer, pianist, composer and founder of The Roberta Martin Singers
- Graham T. Perry (1900-1960), one of the first African-Americans to serve as assistant attorney general for the State of Illinois, father of director Shauneille Perry and uncle of playwright Lorraine Hansberry
- Otis Spann (1930-1970), blues pianist
- James A. "Candy Jim" Taylor (1884-1948), Negro League baseball player and manager
- Emmett Till (1941-1955), murder victim whose death helped galvanize the U.S. Civil Rights Movement
- Ted "Highpockets" Trent (-1944), Negro League pitcher with 45 wins and 13 losses
- Bishop William M. Roberts (1876-1954), oversaw churches in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Iowa, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin
- Dinah Washington (1924-1963), "Queen of the Blues"
- J. Mayo Williams (1894-1980) Early blues and jazz record producer and one of the first black players in the NFL
- Carl L. Davis, Jr. (1959–2008) son of Ollie Davis and Carl L. Davis, Sr.
- The history section is referenced to: Blakely, Robert J. (with Marcus Shepard). Earl B. Dickerson: A Voice for Freedom and Equality. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2006, pp. 54-56.
- "4 charged with digging up graves, reselling plots". CNN. July 9, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-10. "Four people face felony charges after authorities discovered that hundreds of graves were dug up and allegedly resold at a historic African-American cemetery near Chicago, Illinois, authorities said Thursday."
- "New estimate on cemetery bodies: 200 to 300". Chicagobreakingnews. July 9, 2008. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
- Burr Oak Cemetery scandal one year later
- Cemetery shut down, declared a crime scene
- A Message from Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart
- Burr Oak families still locked out; lawyers survey desecrated cemetery
- Study Suggests Too Many Bodies at Chicago Cemetery
- Burr Oak Cemetery turned over to trustee
- 4 charged in scheme to dig up bodies in historic black cemetery
- For Negro League Players, a Measure of Recognition
- Official Burr Oak Cemetery site
- Burr Oak Cemetery – information site maintained by the Cook County Sheriff's Office
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