Suspected Cemetery Vandals Accused Of The Unspeakable Illinois investigators continue to look into just how four individuals allegedly ransacked a historic Chicago-area black cemetery as part of an elaborate money-making scheme. Rutgers University professor Clement Price and genealogist Tony Burroughs discuss the case and the history of black cemeteries.
NPR logo

Suspected Cemetery Vandals Accused Of The Unspeakable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106798630/106798618" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Suspected Cemetery Vandals Accused Of The Unspeakable

Suspected Cemetery Vandals Accused Of The Unspeakable

Suspected Cemetery Vandals Accused Of The Unspeakable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106798630/106798618" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Illinois investigators continue to look into just how four individuals allegedly ransacked a historic Chicago-area black cemetery as part of an elaborate money-making scheme. Rutgers University professor Clement Price and genealogist Tony Burroughs discuss the case and the history of black cemeteries.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to Chicago, where authorities continue to investigate the scandal at an historic African-American graveyard just outside the city. Four workers at the Burr Oak Cemetery are accused of illegally digging up and dumping hundreds of bodies in a scheme to resell the plots. The workers, all of whom are African-American, have been charged with dismemberment of a human body, which is a felony.

Obviously, this incident is deeply disturbing and traumatic for the families involved, but it has also focused national attention on historically black cemeteries. We wanted to know more about them, so we called Clement Price, a professor of history at Rutgers University. He's also the founder and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience.

Also with us is Tony Burroughs, a genealogist and former president of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago.

I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor CLEMENT PRICE (History, Rutgers University; Founder and Director, Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience): Thank you.

Mr. TONY BURROUGHS (Genealogist): Thank you.

MARTIN: Tony, if I could begin with you, would you just tell us little bit about the Burr Oak Cemetery - a little bit of the history?

Mr. BURROUGHS: Well, what's so sad is the fact that it's a very historic cemetery, perhaps the first black-owned cemetery in Chicago. It got started in 1927. They built the cemetery because of the fact that blacks did not want to be buried in a segregated cemetery, and the other white cemeteries refused to accept blacks. So the black professionals and businessmen and ministers, they bought land in this south suburban area, what is now called Alsip, and they purchased land, called it Burr Oak Cemetery.

When they went to make the first burial in February of 1927, they were met by an armed posse of 75 white folks. And they said blacks could not be buried on that land, that they had to go to the segregated cemetery to be buried. So they went back to downtown Chicago and they had an attorney with them who was one of the owners, Earl B. Dickerson, who also headed up Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company in Chicago and was also the first black alderman in Chicago, and he went to court. And they got a writ to make their burial without any interference. So they drove back out the suburb and they had a police motorcade, and the first burial was made under armed guard.

So, I mean, for such a historically significant cemetery to be desecrated like it is, is just an abomination.

MARTIN: And do I have this right, that you have a relative buried there?

Mr. BURROUGHS: I do. I have one known relative, my grandfather - one of my grandfather's sisters is buried there. And my grandmother told me that one of her aunts is buried there, also. And I went to Burr Oak a number of years ago when I started tracing my family genealogy, and they said they had no record of her. But at the time, I had no idea that their records were kept in such poor condition. So I might have at least two relatives buried there, if not more.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about the conditions of the records there in a minute. But Professor Price, I want to bring you into this. Tony Burroughs has just talked about just the struggle to have a place of sanctuary. So could you just give us some context? Is this a typical founding of a black cemetery? How many are there, and that kind of history?

Prof. PRICE: I don't know the numbers, Michel. But I do know that segregation and African-American response to segregation, which we academics call agency, is a cradle-to-grave reality. Indeed, one of the first things that free blacks did in the so-called First Emancipation in the late 18th century and the early 19th century was to form burial societies so that their departed loved ones and friends and associates would be properly buried and the grounds would be properly catered to.

And over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, these burial grounds transformed, in some cases, to cemeteries, and these became very precious spaces. One could easily argue that the hardships that blacks have faced in life in the American Republic are to some extent mediated by the way black Americans want their departed loved ones and friends to be treated in death. So it's a tragic…

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you about that…

Prof. PRICE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …why these burial grounds are so important. And I just want to mention another story. A Miami area construction crew discovered a long forgotten burial ground two months ago. It was thought to be a graveyard for Bahamian settlers who lived there between 1910 - the 1910s and the 1930s. And there have been, of course, as we know, others - the African Burial Ground in New York. Why are these burial grounds so important?

Prof. PRICE: They're important because for the longest time, they were invisible. In other words, the invisibility that had been accorded blacks in life was accorded them in their spaces in death. And one of the things that has happened - especially over the course of the 20th century, and Tony probably knows this better than most because he's a genealogist - the attempt by, I would say, at least to full generations of African-Americans to challenge the invisibility of their historic spaces, including cemeteries and burial grounds.

MARTIN: Tony, though, I have to ask you, though: I know that these workers who are accused of engaging in fraud because they wanted to resell these plots, they couldn't have done that, could they, if these places had been well tended? So I think one of the things that's curious to some people is, well, if these grounds are so historically important, why were they so neglected as to permit this kind of behavior?

Mr. BURROUGHS: Unfortunately, Burr Oak is not an aberration.

Prof. PRICE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURROUGHS: And this has happened you know in many black cemeteries around the country. In my book, "Black Roots," I document abandoned cemeteries in Dallas, Texas, in South Carolina, in Chicago, all around the country. And what happens is unfortunately, African-Americans, in many cases, don't have the money to have a proper grave marker, and that kind of contributes, you know, to the problem.

And then as people you know get older and they get more modern and get attached to television and popular culture, they start neglecting going out to the cemetery and paying homage to their ancestors, which used to be a regular procedure.

MARTIN: Oh, then a finally question to each of you: What do you hope will happen as a result of our renewed awareness of these sites as a result of this incident? Tony Burroughs?

Mr. BURROUGHS: Well, I would hope that African-Americans and all Americans would be more aware of not only cemeteries, but the challenges of maintaining cemeteries and understand their own private responsibility to their ancestors. Because if it wasn't for our ancestors, we would not be here today, so we stand on their shoulders. So if you don't understand that, I mean…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BURROUGHS: …you've kind of got a big hole in your head.

MARTIN: Professor Price, a final word from you? What lesson would you want us to draw from what happened at Burr Oak Cemetery?

Prof. PRICE: We need to be attentive to the details of the funeral and burial business, and it should be held accountable, as all businesses should be. Secondly, these cemeteries and burial spaces are precious black spaces. And finally, what are the standards of comportment for those who do service to the race? I was just floored and saddened that the alleged perpetrators of these crimes were African-Americans. What could have been their life story for them to end up behaving in such a way?

MARTIN: Clement Price teaches history at Rutgers University. He is the founder and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, and he joined us from Newark.

Tony Burroughs is a genealogist and former president of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago, and he joined us from Chicago.

Gentlemen, I thank you both so much.

Mr. BURROUGHS: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Prof. PRICE: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.