All four of my grandparents are buried at historic Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. As are my great aunt and oldest friend. I first visited the cemetery back in 1988 — but knew nothing of a colossal Confederate monument there until this past spring.
On a sunny Sunday April morning, the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp Douglas 516 Chicago held its annual memorial at Oak Woods. Dozens of white men — draped in Confederate flags, regalia and uniforms — huddled around a 30-foot monument and mass grave.
Oak Woods is the final resting place of more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners in Chicago during the Civil War. I covered the event for WBEZ. Reporting on the observance demonstrated an exercise in patience and suspended reality. I stammered while interviewing these Confederate sympathizers who insisted slavery didn’t trigger the Civil War, or magnanimously suggested it played only a small part. One woman drove from Florida to celebrate the dead Confederate soldiers. She shouted at me: “Look at the names. What if that was your great-great grandfather? Would you want someone kicking over your great-great grandfather’s headstone … (he) can’t defend himself.”
Who knew Chicago possessed a racist symbol smack in the middle of the black Woodlawn neighborhood? Around the country, monuments and symbols of white supremacy or racism are debated and coming down. Far too many Americans stridently refuse to believe the real cause of the Civil War. Far too many embrace the Confederate flag as a Southern heritage badge.
Understanding all parts of U.S. history is necessary, but Confederate monuments are glorifications, not simply reminders of a wretched past. A coterie of young people has demanded that the monument at Oak Woods be taken down, but the effort hasn’t gained momentum.
However, uplifting movements are rippling through the city, a serendipitous counter-crusade. The organizing locally is about who should be honored in Chicago. I’m heartened to see the focus around black women.
The city has few memorials to women of any race. Change is underfoot.
Plans to rename Balbo Drive after Ida B. Wells stalled in the City Council this week. But another worthy effort is underway for Wells (who also happens to be buried at Oak Woods Cemetery.) Her great-granddaughter Michelle Duster is leading a fundraising campaign to erect a monument to her. The piece, to be designed by acclaimed artist Richard Hunt, would go in the mixed-income housing development that replaced the Ida B. Wells public housing complex in Bronzeville.
Wells is a hero. More Chicagoans should know her name. She fought racism and sexism while crusading for social justice. Born into slavery in 1862, Wells attended college and became a teacher and journalist. She’s largely credited with unmasking the lynching of black men through her investigations and published accounts of racial terrorism in the South. “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” she once said. Wells, a suffragette, helped found the NAACP. In 1894, she moved to Chicago, married a lawyer and had a family — and continued her activism in politics while pushing for women to receive the right to vote.
As a journalist, Wells inspires me and my work. When I bought my first condo in Bronzeville, I relished that I lived in what was her neighborhood. A historic marker stands in front of her greystone at 3624 S. King Drive. I’ve already donated money to ensure a sculpture goes up in Wells’ honor.
Also on the South Side, two University of Chicago female students initiated a campaign to honor an unsung alumna. Last fall, the campus unveiled a bust of Georgiana Rose Simpson, one of the first African-American women to earn a Ph.D. in the U.S. She attempted to integrate a dorm in 1907, and the university president forced her to find off-campus housing. Simpson had an accomplished scholarly career in German and African-American literature.
Gwendolyn Brooks is a familiar name even outside of literary circles. Earlier this month, on what would’ve been her 101st birthday, a statue of the poet debuted at her namesake city park on the South Side.
And while it’s not a monument, Mariame Kaba and Essence McDowell published this year a tribute to black women. “Lifting as They Climbed: Mapping a History of Black Women on Chicago’s South Side” is a guidebook featuring black women from the mid-19th century to today who contributed to the city. These women were artists, abolitionists, scholars, educators and civic leaders. Many names I did not know, and the book allows readers to take a self-guided tour to see the locations in which they lived, worked or made their mark.
Chicago is a better place because of their contributions and all of the women finally getting their due. These are powerful symbols against the ugly ones.
Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
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