Officials tout Burr Oak Cemetery’s monument, renovation

SHARE Officials tout Burr Oak Cemetery’s monument, renovation

The late Emmett Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon nearly choked up Friday as she stood on the grounds of Burr Oak Cemetery where Till’s remains are buried and where a grave reselling scandal had brought many to tears.

But on this day, she felt some peace following the dedication of a memorial at the historic black cemetery. The memorial was created to honor those whose graves and bodies had been desecrated and lost and in recognition of the pain that caused their families.

“Absolutely breathtaking, I don’t have the words,” an emotional Gordon said after gazing at the granite monument that depicts a little girl with her arms around a young boy holding a framed picture of a man and a woman.

“I didn’t expect to see the children [depicted]. I think it’s wonderful…. Since Emmett was so young and there were so many babies out here and their graves were just abolished, it seems perfectly fitting.”

The monument sits by the front gate near 127th Street and Kostner Avenue near Alsip.

On what was called a symbolic new beginning for the cemetery, which has undergone major renovation, politicians, dignitaries and others whose loved ones are buried there were on hand for the dedication of the monument and an open house.

In July 2009, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart revealed that the former manager of the cemetery, Carolyn Towns, and three other cemetery workers had for years dug up graves, dumped the bodies and resold the plots at the cemetery. Word of the scandal drove thousands to the site in search of news on what happened to their loved ones’ remains. Towns is serving a 12-year prison sentence for her role in the crimes at Burr Oak, the site of the remains of Dinah Washington and Negro League baseball players.

“What happened here five years ago was nothing short of a national disaster, a national disgrace,” Dart said. “It was an abomination…. The thing that I will never forget. I’ll never get over …is the many days I spent here with my staff walking with the family members… trying to make them feel as if some how some way things will get better at some point… I’ll never forget the young mothers who have children that were buried out here, whatever happened to some of those graves we will never know.”

He said some good came out of the tragedy, referencing legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, which imposed tough new regulations on cemeteries in the state, and the renovated grounds at Burr Oak, which had been in major disrepair.

Renovations include a new 2,400-square foot office building and greeting center that includes a kiosk, where visitors can easily find their loved ones and learn about the history of the cemetery; as well as new fencing and landscaping, and resurfaced roads.

Former judge and prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes, who was named cemetery trustee after the scandal forced the cemetery into bankruptcy, said local small businesses played a major role in the site’s renovation.

The cemetery has gone “from a national disgrace to a national monument,” Dart said. “…It was so dire for so long here… To all the family members… I’m sorry we’ll never be able to make you whole, but from all that tragedy we have this.”

Quinn called the cemetery “hallowed ground… I think it’s so important that we the people here came together five years ago when we learned of the horrific situation and we did something about it.”

The events Friday took place the week of the 59th anniversary of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose death in Mississippi helped launch the civil rights movement.

Gordon said she felt hurt and betrayed when the cemetery scandal surfaced “as many families did…. Today, it brings joy to my heart to see how it has improved.”

Velma Washington-Curry came out for the day and brought with her a picture of her mother, Hattie Washington, who is buried at the cemetery. Her cousin Michael Johnson helped design the new office building.

“I used to visit my mother and didn’t know this was going on right in front of my eyes,” she said of her thoughts after the scandal broke. “It made me upset. Oh, it made me angry. We were all disturbed. I said how could they let this happen and do this to a cemetery that’s got a rich African-American history?”

But Friday she savored a different emotion.

“I’m happy,” she said. “The spirits need to be at rest here. I’m just elated that the people in charge are taking care of business.”

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