On Sunday, two groups with widely different views of American history and race gathered separately in Chicago, at a cemetery important to both.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp Douglas 516 Chicago held its annual memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery on east 67th Street, on the South Side.
About 40 members gathered near a 30-foot monument and a mass grave of more than 4,000 Confederate soldiers who died as prisoners during the Civil War.
Sons of Confederate Veterans are the descendants of those soldiers. During Sunday’s ceremony, men waved Confederate flags and some dressed like soldiers. One couple from Kane County, who did not want their names used, dismissed the idea that the Civil War was about slavery and that Confederate soldiers had rebelled against the United States.
“The idea of rebellion is a tricky one,” said the man, wearing Confederate pin and bow tie while holding a Confederate flag. “While slavery is in fact the filter, the tinge, the thread that goes through all of it, it really as far as causes of the war was a separate sub-issue.”
The woman said Confederate soldiers fought to protect their homes and farmland.
“They were just protecting their homeland just like the North was protecting their homeland,” she said.
Meanwhile, another group called Smash White Supremacy walked the cemetery grounds at the same time. Members want the Confederate monument removed. But the 50 protesters avoided the Confederate monument. Instead, they sang songs, chanted, and paid tribute to anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells at her grave site, also at Oak Woods. There’s a separate fundraising campaign for a monument to honor Wells in Chicago.
“She really fought to have lynching viewed as a hate crime. She showed a lot of fortitude and was ahead of her time,” said Zebulon Hurst, who performed poetry at Wells’ grave.
Hurst said Sunday’s two events are a glimpse into American political divisions.
“White supremacy and black independence exist in the same land and are always in contention with each other. Like today we didn’t interact with anyone from the Sons of the Confederacy. We live these adjacent lives parallel to these people who have held power,” Hurst said.
How the Confederate soldiers ended up at Oak Woods is little known history for many Chicagoans.
“The confederate soldiers that died were buried right up here where we are in Lincoln Park, which was the city’s cemetery in the potter’s field,” said Russell Lewis, from his office at the Chicago History Museum, where he’s vice president and chief historian.
When the Civil War ended the cemetery was turned into a park named for Abraham Lincoln. The human remains were re-interred at Oak Woods, in a massive grave.
Peter Irvine is an Episcopal priest who lives in Janesville, Wi., and once served as chaplain for the Camp Douglas SCV branch.
Irvine said he sees the monument as honoring the dead.
“They were not generals, they were not famous; they probably weren’t heroes and nobody is saying they were. What happened with them is they died in a prison camp and therefore we need to honor their sacrifice even though we may not agree with the cause they were fighting for,” Irvine said.
Still, he said he doesn’t plan to come back for a memorial or renew his SCV membership, as the whole question of Confederate monuments has become hugely controversial across the nation.
Russell Lewis said it doesn’t matter whether it’s an individual or group of people who are memorialized by a Confederate monument – they all believed in that cause, a cause he said was wrong.
“They were rebels,” Lewis said. “They were rebelling against the United States of America. That often gets lost. They were committing treason and people don’t like to talk about that very much.”
On its website, the Chicago Illinois SCV division has an anti-hate stance denouncing hate groups and signaling that the society’s purpose is Southern heritage. But that’s not what the Confederacy is about, Lewis said.
“History can be a powerful force in people’s lives. It can be a very powerful thing for the good and it can also be a tool of attack and injury and destruction,” Lewis said.
For his part, Irvine said communities need to decide for themselves if Confederate monuments come down, including Chicagoans who have issues with the one in Oak Woods. But he said keeping it up reminds people of a sad history and can help make sure nothing like slavery happens again.
The Chicago SCV branch requested and received approval from the Veterans Administration to hold a memorial. A spokesman for the VA said it has no plans to disturb the Oak Woods gravesite or monument.
Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.