Deep inside Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago’s predominantly African-American Grand Crossing neighborhood, a 40 foot–tall monument looms over a grave of Southern rebels. The bronze likeness of a nameless soldier marks Confederate Mound, the South Side resting place of more than 6,000 Confederate fighters who died at Camp Douglas, a Civil War military prison that stood in present-day Bronzeville.
Confederate Mound is also the site of an annual neo-Confederate memorial service. Each April, members from the Illinois branch of the hereditary organization Illinois Sons of Confederate Veterans come from across the state to honor the soldiers buried in Oak Woods, donning Confederate costumes, antiquated rifles, and rebel flags. Despite the memorial’s proximity to the nearby grave of activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, the tradition has gone on for nearly three decades with little controversy.
This Sunday, the group returns to the cemetery for its 27th annual memorial service. But this year, the event won’t fly under the radar.
When the Sons of Confederate Veterans walk through the cemetery’s north entrance at 67th and Greenwood, they’ll be met by protesters from a local coalition called Smash White Supremacy. The group, with support from Chicago’s chapter of black activist group BYP100, isn’t just calling for the removal of the Confederate monument; they also want federal funds used for its upkeep to be diverted toward the effort to erect a monument to Wells, which the city has not commissioned since her death in 1931.
On Sunday, Smash White Supremacy plans to hang two six-foot banners at the entrance to Oak Woods Cemetery. One will illustrate Wells’s life and career, including her investigative reporting on lynchings in the Jim Crow south. The second will illustrate the history of the Confederate monument, including the end of the Civil War and the pillar's dedication in 1895.
“A monument to the Confederacy should not be casting its shadow over Ida B. Wells’ grave,” organizers said in a statement. After the Sons of Confederate Veterans enter the cemetery for their memorial, the activists say they’ll march to Wells’s grave with flowers and candles. As of Friday morning, nearly 300 people were listed as interested in or attending the event on Facebook.
Matthew Evans, Camp Commander for the local Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp Douglas #516, suspected this year’s memorial service would draw a crowd. He first heard about activists’ calls to remove the statue at Confederate Mound—and a series of planned protests in the cemetery—earlier this month. On April 6, ahead of the group’s first protest, Evans told Chicago he was willing to help raise awareness—and even money—for the Wells memorial, “so long as there’s no conversation about removing anything from Confederate Mound.”
“I'd like to come to some sort of agreement if they really want a monument to Ida B. Wells,” he said. “I don’t want to bring race into it, because that’s been so overplayed in this country, but it would be enlightening to have a monument of her somewhere in the city to empower young black women.”
The next day, April 7, about a dozen protesters and neighbors gathered outside the southern end of Oak Woods Cemetery, the Confederate statue looming in the background. Vivian Lee, 53, who lives across the street from the cemetery, had gazed up at the monument for years. But she didn’t realize it represented the Confederacy until she spotted a protest flier at a nearby bus stop. Now, she says, she’s irked. Not only are African-American icons like Olympian Jesse Owens, Chicago's first black mayor Harold Washington, and Wells buried in Oak Woods—members of Lee's own family are too.
“They should take it down,” she said, “and put up a monument to [Wells].”
Asked about Evans's offer to support a monument to Wells, BYP100 organizing co-chair Cosette Hampton didn’t mince words. “BYP100—and a lot of the black people we’ve been organizing with—are not willing to sit down with someone who’s unwilling to disinvest in monuments that remind us of the harm we've suffered under white supremacy.”
“A lot of the soldiers memorialized by the [the monument] have contributed to systems that killed black people, harmed black people, and fortified the institution of slavery,” she said. “I think [Evans’s offer] is representative of how [white institutions] want to invest in our communities. They want to invest in ways that keep themselves safe, and their money safe, but they are unwilling to disinvest in the systems that keep us oppressed. They keep us aware that white supremacy is going to take place wherever we are.”
Katherine Cavanaugh of Smash White Supremacy adds that groups like Evans’s seek to sanitize the history of the Confederacy, shifting emphasis from the rebel army's mission to preserve slavery.
Indeed, a post on the Camp Douglas Memorial #516’s website makes the oft-disputed claim that as many as 100,000 “blacks served willingly and honorably in the Confederate armies,” and that for most rebel fighters, "to state their motive for fighting was the preservation of slavery is pure nonsense."
On the same page, the author writes that had the South prevailed, Robert E. Lee would have been elected president and “taken immediate steps to free the slaves,” which "would have been accepted by the South and would have advanced race-relations light years."
“This isn’t just about military history,” Cavanaugh says. “It is about slavery, and they really like to push that under the rug.”
Despite their differences, both Evans and Smash White Supremacy hope for a peaceful scenario on Sunday. On April 16, Smash White Supremacy held a training and planning session for the protest that addressed safety concerns. The same day, Evans went live on Facebook to address the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"As far as the memorial service for Sunday, if any of the members of SWS are watching or any news affiliates are watching, let’s try to be peaceful with this,” he said. “We don’t need to add fuel to the fire… I hope that we can all somehow get along.”
As for accusations that his group celebrates those who fortified slavery, Evans insists of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “we aren’t racists.” His group doesn’t exist to honor slaveholders or racists, he says, but to pay homage to people's ancestors.
"All we're doing is honoring soldiers," he says. "American soldiers."