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Confederate memorial on South Side sparks protest

Members of the group Sons of Confederate Veterans hold a memorial at a gravesite at Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side that contains the remains of about 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died at a POW camp that was located in the Bronzeville neighborhood. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

At a South Side cemetery on Sunday, the two groups never crossed paths.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans held a memorial at a grave that contains the remains of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

Some dressed as soldiers, carrying muskets and Confederate flags — about two dozen members of the group attended the annual event.

Several hundred yards away, a group of about 50 protesters sang and laid flowers at the grave of Ida B. Wells, the civil rights icon and journalist whose work documented lynchings in the South.

The parallel memorials played out at Oak Woods Cemetery, near 67th and Cottage Grove, where former Mayor Harold Washington and Olympic hero Jesse Owens are also buried.

A protester lays flowers at the grave of anti-lynching crusader Ida. B. Wells.| Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
A protester lays flowers at the grave of anti-lynching crusader Ida. B. Wells.| Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

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Smash White Supremacy Chicago — a group that formed in response to the racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year — organized the protest.

“It’s very clear this is not just a memorial service for people who have died, that it’s honoring a legacy that protected the slave trade,” said a leader of the group who asked to only be identified as Erica. “We are out here to build community support against the monument and make sure it gets taken down.”

Sons of Confederate Veterans “are still clinging to a racist history,” she said.

The gravesite, known as Confederate Mound, contains the remains of some 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died under harsh living conditions at Camp Douglas, a prisoner of war camp that was located in Bronzeville.

The mass grave is marked by a 30-foot-tall granite column, atop of which stands a Confederate soldier. At the base of the column, bronze plaques bear names of the dead.

A leader of Sons of Confederate Veterans said neither he, nor anyone in the group, would be talking to reporters.

However one member of the group, a bearded young man in a suit, agreed to chat anonymously.

“This is all about honoring people,” he said, largely separating the legacy of the soldiers from slavery.

The man nodded as a woman he was with argued that the soldiers were mainly defending their families and their homes.

“I don’t think this dishonors anybody … it’s a grave marker,” he said. “You will not find a mass grave on a plantation bigger than this one.”

Addressing the removal of Confederate monuments, he said: “Where does it end?”

The Confederate gravesite is on a patch of federally owned land within the cemetery that’s run by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA spokesman Craig Larson was at the event handing out a statement to reporters.

It said that the VA “has a long record of balancing history with respecting fallen service members and those who come to honor them.”

The VA only permits the display of Confederate flags two days each year: Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day, if it is recognized by the state in which the cemetery is located.

“If the state in which the cemetery is located does not recognize Confederate Memorial Day, such as Illinois, an ‘in lieu of’ ceremonial day may be approved.”

Such approval was granted for Sunday’s memorial, Larson said.