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Community organizers want Confederate monument removed from Oak Woods Cemetery

Organizers with Smash White Supremacy Chicago and Black Youth Project 100 march down 71st Street. They're demanding the removal of a Confederate monument in Oak Woods Cemetery. | Rachel Hinton/ Sun-Times

Community organizers came together Saturday to call for the removal of a Confederate monument looming over the final resting places of prominent African-American figures, including journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, Jesse Owens and Mayor Harold Washington.

The memorial — a statue of a Confederate soldier, atop a stone column — commemorates over 4,000 known Confederate prisoners who died at Camp Douglas, a Union Army prisoner of war camp and training ground in Chicago during the Civil War.

Those soldiers, as well as some Union soldiers who died at the camp, were reinterred together at Oak Woods Cemetery in a mass grave. That spot is called Confederate Mound.

The rally at the cemetery, 1035 E. 67th St., in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, was organized by Smash White Supremacy Chicago, because of that monument. The 183-acre cemetery is along 71st Street, which is also Honorary Emmett Till Road. Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955; his death was a spark for the civil rights movement.

Civil War cannons stand near a 30-foot monument topped by a statue of a soldier, marking a mass grave of Confederate soldiers in Oak Woods Cemetery. | File photo

Around a dozen people marched with banners to 71st Street and Drexel where the monument could be seen in the distance. Some motorists honked yelling their thanks and support.

Andrew Koch, with Smash White Supremacy Chicago, said the push to remove the statue started in October after violent protests at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We’re not against remembering history, but the monument isn’t the only way to remember [this war],” Koch said. “Monuments are erected to honor or commemorate the highest held ideals of our country and it’s inappropriate to have this near Ida B. Wells who has a tiny grave marker.”

Along with other Chicago-based organizations, like Black Youth Project 100, organizers called for the statue’s removal and the installation of a memorial for Wells.

That idea was started by Black Youth Project 100, which launched the #HonorHerLabor campaign on Labor Day to build a memorial to Wells to replace the confederate statue in the cemetery.

“The work of black women often goes unnoticed and that is definitely made apparent when we see a 40-foot tall tower towering over the resting place of Ida B. Wells, who fought against lynching, in the city of Chicago and across the U.S.,” said Cosette Hampton, the organizing co-chair of BYP100.

Hampton said BYP 100 is demanding that the money that’s used for the monument be given to the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee to build a monument in Wells’ name.

The rally follows on the heels of other demonstrations to topple Confederate monuments that started in earnest last year after the Charlottesville rally. Among the commemorations removed were statues and plaques honoring Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and its top military commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The one at Oak Woods is about 40 feet tall, according to the National Cemetery Association, part of the Veterans Administration; the National Park Service describes it as a 30-foot granite column, which may not include the base of the monument.

Matthew Evans, Camp Commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp Douglas #516, said that there was little the Sons of Confederate Veterans could do because they don’t own the statue. The Veterans Administration owns the grounds where it is located, he said. According to the Veterans Administration, the solders’ lot is overseen by the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.

Evans said the group supports having an Ida B. Wells monument and has reached out to Smash White Supremacy ahead of their commemorative visit to the cemetery later this month.

“We’ll be there April 22 and if they’d like to have a civil conversation to discuss that process we’re all for it,” Evans said.

Koch said Smash White Supremacy Chicago has gone door-to-door to almost 400 residences, collecting signatures to present to local officials so they can put pressure on federal organizations to remove the monument.

“We’re not asking that they not have a grave marker, but we want the statue removed,” Koch said.