Sunday, February 21, 2010

the great grave robbery

Alsip, Illinois is a predominantly white community in southern Cook County that is home to two graveyards (Burr Oak and Restvale), both of which are predominantly African-American.

Restvale is the final resting place for a number of blues musicians (including Muddy Waters)

and Burr Oak is the burial site for Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder ignited the modern civil rights era. Burr Oak gained national prominence in 2004 when Emmett Till’s body was exhumed to assist in the murder investigation.

Burr Oak was again in the news last summer, but for a far more sinister reason: grave robbing.

Three men and one woman allegedly dug up more than 100 graves (including Emmett Till’s), dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves, and resold the the plots to unsuspecting members of the public. On July 9, 2009, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart charged each of them with one count each of dismembering a human body.

Graves in cemeteries DO get moved on occasion, but always with the full knowledge of the next of kin.

Officials at O’Hare airport have moved 24 graves from 161 year old St. Johannes cemetery to other cemeteries with the full consent of family members, but a state appellate court barred any further transfers on February 18, 2010.

Lincoln Park in Chicago began as a small cemetery on the northernmost boundary of the city in 1843, but all graves (except one) were moved to other cemeteries over time. Ira Couch is the only remaining “resident” of the original cemetery.

What’s not well known is that one of the largest public cemeteries in America (Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island. is the largest) is built on grounds that were stolen from the disabled wife of an Army general.

In essence, she was robbed of her land so that the Union army would have a place for the graves of its soldiers killed during the Civil War.

Mary Anna Custis Lee was the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Colonel Robert E. Lee, who at that time had served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, was offered command of the Union Army. Lee had disapproved of secession, but felt that he could not turn his back on the citizens of Virginia, his native state. Instead of accepting the Union command, he decided to resign his commission in the army, which he did in writing while still residing in the home. After his resignation, Lee reported for duty in Richmond, as commander of the Virginia Provisional Army. He soon joined the Confederate States Army and was promoted to general.

Mary Anna Curtis Lee is a direct descendant of George Washington, our first President (her father was George Washington Parke Curtis, who was George Washington’s step grandson).

She married her longtime friend Robert E. Lee at her parent’s house (Arlington House) on June 20, 1831, and she inherited Arlington House on her father’s death in 1857.

As she got older, she developed rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1861 she was using a wheelchair for mobility. She stayed at Arlington House for about a month after the outbreak of the Civil War, but moved out for good on May 15, 1861. At the end of the Civil War, she was only able to see her beloved Arlington House once more before her death in 1873, but was unable to leave her carriage.

The federal government had confiscated the mansion property, in 1864, claiming that property taxes had not been paid (she was roughly $9 in arrears)

Robert E. Lee and his wife never legally challenged the return of the home. In 1870, after his father's death, George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee, filed a lawsuit in the Alexandria Circuit Court which resulted in a later Supreme Court decision in 1882 awarding Custis Lee just compensation for the house and 1,100 acres (4 km2). Lee originally asked for $300,000, however, the court only awarded $150,000 (about $3,200,000 in today's money), considered the fair market value of the property.

More than 300,000 people have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery since its inception in 1864, and my guess is that very few of them knew the history of the grounds they were buried in.

If you have occasion to visit Arlington Cemetery (my last visit there was in 1986) say a prayer of thanks to those 300,000 veterans who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, but don’t forget to thank Mary Anna Curtis Lee for her contribution to America’s history.

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