Activists push for landmark status at Burr Oak Cemetery, where there are ‘improvements to be made’

More than a decade after scandal hit the historic cemetery, local advocates say there’s still much left to be desired, with wooden markers broken and rain causing Emmett Till’s grave to be constantly submerged.

SHARE Activists push for landmark status at Burr Oak Cemetery, where there are ‘improvements to be made’
Edward Boone Tammy Gibson Denise Yancy Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery lilies

From left, Edward Boone, Tammy Gibson and Denise Yancy, members of Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery, place lilies on a marker at the Burr Oak cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, on Sunday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Fourteen years after Burr Oak Cemetery was raided as part of a grave-selling scheme, activists walked among the broken wooden posts littering the grounds Sunday morning to push for the final resting place of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till — and many others — to be given National Historic Landmark status.

Members of the Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery, a group founded by members of the public who attended the trials of the since-convicted cemetery workers, say Till’s grave is often submerged after storms.

Additionally, a kiosk at the entrance designed to help people find where their loved ones are buried has a partially broken touchscreen and shows no results when searching for Till by name. After multiple attempts, a Sun-Times reporter was able to pull up Till’s page on the kiosk, though it was missing location information.

Tammy Gibson Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery

Tammy Gibson, a member of Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery, adjusts a faded white marker.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The group believes the added oversight of a landmark status would help keep the burial grounds in good condition.

“There’s a lot of improvements to be made,” said Tammy Gibson, the group’s co-chair. “Having it as a historical site, this would all be taken care of.”

Added Ed Boone, a founding member, “The legacy and impact [Till and his mother] had on history, we feel that this cemetery should be designated as a historical site.”

Along with Till’s remains, the cemetery also serves as a final resting place for his mother, recording artist Dinah Washington and several Negro League baseball players.

Emmett Till grave marker Burr Oak Cemetery

Emmett Till’s grave marker is seen Sunday at the Burr Oak Cemetery.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The cemetery’s office was closed Sunday, and representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment. A sign outside the office said a clean up was due in August.

Boone has picked his share of fights with the cemetery. Both his parents are buried there, and after he suspected his mother’s grave was too deep, he took the matter to court. He said she was reinterred shortly after, just before the cemetery was raided in connection with the scandal.

The cemetery’s former owner was paroled in 2017, while two employees were sentenced to six and three years respectively in 2016 for their role in digging up remains and reselling grave plots.

On Sunday, Boone, Gibson and fellow member Denise Yancy left white lilacs at the site of a memorial to those buried at the cemetery.

Tammy Gibson Emmett Till grave marker Burr Oak Cemetery

Tammy Gibson reaches down to clean Emmett Till’s grave marker at the Burr Oak Cemetery on Sunday.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The group has hope their campaign will be successful, with nearly 1,300 signatures on a petition and legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth to mark the church where Till’s funeral services were held as a national landmark — despite the fact that the bill has been stuck in committee since it was introduced in March 2021.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis introduced another bill aiming to do the same less than two weeks ago. Though Boone was glad more legislation has been introduced, he said it would be “backwards” if the church where the services were held got landmark status and Till’s final resting place did not.

“I feel a connection to everyone here,” Boone said when asked what achieving the landmark status would mean to him. “I’d be overjoyed.”

“We’re gonna get it done,” Yancy said.

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