The Crusader Newspaper Group

Activists seek landmark status and improvements at Burr Oak Cemetery

Photo caption: Burr Oak Cemetery

Burr Oak Cemetery, where the graves of Chicago’s Black pioneers, civil rights leaders, attorneys, entertainers and professional athletes are located, is one of the oldest Black cemeteries in the Chicago area.

It was featured in the 1975 movie Cooley High, where the character Cochise was “buried” after he was found beaten to death under an L track on the North Side by his schoolmate, Preacher.

But today, 14 years after a grave-robbing scandal, a group of activists want to see improvements made to Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip. They also want the cemetery to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

Members of the group Friends of Burr Oak Cemetery, headed by co-chair Tammy Gibson and founding member Ed Boone, say the cemetery floods after storms and a kiosk that helps people find their loved ones is partially broken.

The group has launched a campaign with a petition that has 1,328 signatures as of July 10, on

“Having Burr Oak Cemetery registered as a historical site will bring forth many benefits, including assistance with preservation, heritage tourism, education, and awareness to the African American community, and the nation, while increasing awareness and appreciation,” Boone said on the website.

Burr Oak Cemetery was founded in 1927 when prominent Attorney Earl B. Dickerson and William Ellis Stewart, secretary of Black-owned Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company, bought 40 acres of land for $50,000.

According to Burr Oak’s website, many residents in Alsip were opposed to having an African American cemetery in their town. Armed police blocked the first burial and cemetery dedication until a deputy sheriff stood guard so the interment could take place. Despite much opposition, Burr Oak Cemetery was finally established.

Since then, Burr Oak Cemetery has become the final resting place for Dickerson, Stewart, hair care magnate Annie Malone, businessman Carl Augustus Hansberry (father of playwright Lorraine Hansberry), jazz singer Dinah Washington, members of the National Negro Baseball League and murdered teenager Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. U.S. veterans who served in wars are also buried at Burr Oak.

In 2021, historian and civil rights leader Timuel Black was buried there, and Reverend Clay Evans, who ordained Reverend Jesse Jackson, was interred at Burr Oak, as was his wife, Lutha Mae Hollingshed Evans.

Till’s grave remains the most visited site at the cemetery. He was buried at Burr Oak in September 1955, weeks after the 14-year-old Chicago boy was murdered by two white men in Money, Mississippi. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River tied to a large cotton gin fan with barbed wire. His mother held an open casket funeral at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville.

After three days of viewing that drew 250,000 people, Till was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery. Hundreds saw his casket lowered into the ground. His ground level marker read simply, “Emmett Till, In Loving Memory,” along with the dates of his birth and death, and a tiny photo of him from Christmas, 1954.

His mother, Till-Mobley, was increasingly dissatisfied with the conditions and upkeep of the grounds. Till’s gravesite was often flooded, the headstone and flower vase were broken by mowers. Reports say Till-Mobley longed to move her son’s remains to Oak Woods Cemetery in Greater Grand Crossing and established a fundraising campaign to make it happen.

In 2009, four workers at Burr Oak Cemetery dug up more than 200 graves, dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves, and resold the plots as part of a five-year scheme. Till’s grave was unharmed.

Two men were convicted and sentenced to six- and three-year prison terms, respectively. Burr Oak officials worked with the Cook County Sherriff’s Office to re-bury loved ones and established a new recordkeeping system that includes the kiosk near the cemetery entrance.

Recent News

Scroll to Top