Focus on Oakland Cemetery
Oakland Cemetery is a picturesque spot in Shreveport, with expansive old oak and cedar trees and a landscape accentuated by gentle rolling hills. Scattered throughout are the typical Victorian era monuments, including statues, obelisks, slabs and iron fences. People of this Shreveport neighborhood once thought nothing of walking through this beautiful landscape for leisure or even perhaps spreading a picnic blanket on a warm spring day. Indeed, many in the neighborhood still do this occasionally. It is a perfect spot for the living to commune with the dead or simply to remember them in quiet moments of respect and reflection. It is also perhaps Shreveport’s most significant historic landmark.
At perpetual rest within Oakland Cemetery are Confederate soldiers, mayors, the famous Shreveport madam Annie McCune, and important early settlers of the Shreveport-Bossier area on the Red River. A walk among the graves reveals a “who’s who” of early Shreveport, including such notables as Mary Bennett Cane, wife of James Cane, and considered the mother of Shreveport and Bossier City. Also in Oakland is Dr. Alphonse Smith, the first African American physician in Shreveport. Colonel Leon Marks, a hero at Vicksburg during the Civil War, rests in here as well.
Burials began in Shreveport in 1840, even though the city did not officially establish the cemetery until 1847. By mayoral decree, Lawrence Pike Crain that year required that all bodies buried within Shreveport should be placed in Oakland Cemetery. As a result, the city moved some bodies to Oakland from other locations. The oldest verified burial in Oakland was that of Rufus Sewall, the second mayor of Shreveport, killed in a duel in 1842. The city sold burial plots in Oakland until 1930. Today, the cemetery has been the victim of both neglect and malicious property damage, although dedicated preservationists work diligently to maintain this remarkable reminder of the past.
For Shreveport, this sacred ground represents a history classroom of sorts, eternally imprinted with the lives of the city’s past. Dates and names carved in stone are much more than simple markers of a life that once was; they are also living memorials of Shreveport history. So many of those who lie in Oakland Cemetery could be a chapter of their own in the great story of the city, so significant were their contributions to the unique flavor and allure of the city by the Red River. Notably, Oakland Cemetery is the final resting place for approximately 800 victims of the city’s Yellow Fever epidemic of 1873. The death toll mounted so rapidly during that fateful summer that city officials did not have time to arrange for timely proper burials. A mass grave is now marked with a simple monument commemorating the numerous dead who share eternal rest in a common plot of consecrated ground. This speaks to the haunted tales that surround Oakland Cemetery.
One can only imagine the impact of the epidemic on the citizens of the city, who most certainly reacted with disbelief and fear. The clergy were indispensable allies to the physicians in this tragic scenario, and in Shreveport, five Roman Catholic priests and two religious sisters heroically died in the service and care of the city’s dying victims. Furthermore, many other local ministers and pastors remained and worked among the sick and dying, even opening up their churches to serve as hospitals. Another hero who succumbed to the fever was U.S. Army First Lieutenant Eugene Augustus Woodruff, the commander of the engineering unit tasked with clearing the Great Raft. The logjam had reappeared in 1872 and Congress wanted the Red River
opened for commerce. Woodruff and his men had made great progress when the fever struck. The Army ordered the unit to leave Shreveport for its own safety, but Woodruff remained to help the people of Shreveport in their time of need. He sent his men, including his brother George, to supposedly healthier areas near Alexandria. Woodruff died working with the priests to care for victims. The heat and the death during that summer of 1873 tried the resolve and faith of the young river city, perhaps best reflected in that single mass grave at Oakland Cemetery.
There is more to the Oakland mystique. Jews escaping the anti-Semitism of Europe in the early nineteenth century came in large numbers to the South, and many settled in and around the booming Shreveport area. The Hebrew Mutual Benevolent Association purchased a tract of ground within Oakland in 1859 and dedicated its use as the first burial place for Jews within the city. This one-acre plot is a poignant reminder even today of the numbers of Jews who sought new lives and refuge in this part of the world during times of great persecution.
The energy of history lives on, and many believe this to be true in the lore of haunted cemeteries. After all, cemeteries do not really exist for the dead but for the living who wish to remember them. Some believe that merely walking through a cemetery evokes an awareness of one’s own mortality, heightening the senses and awareness. The explanation for this lies with the funeral and burial rituals of our collective human experience that are prehistoric in origin. Humans mourn their dead, ritualize their passing, and commemorate the closure and finality of life with proper burial. These practices are literally thousands of years old, reflecting a common human understanding throughout history that it is through such rituals and preservation of earthly remains that human mortality is marked and understood to the extent possible. To bury the dead and mark the location of their body with stone and flowers is to acknowledge that this life was indeed worth living. Gravestones stand for decades and centuries to remember the life that once was temporal now exists in an eternal realm of memory. Therefore, it is accurate to note that cemeteries are for the living, but even experts cannot know the impact of such ritualistic closure on the life abruptly ended.
For these victims of the Shreveport yellow fever epidemic, such common and necessary ritualistic measures did not apply. Contemporary accounts reveal with stunning clarity the hastiness of the bodies’ removals as well as the desperate attempts to dispose of the bodies in fear of perpetuating the alarming infection rate. The remains of hundreds of the city’s residents now lie together communally in a solemn and sad expression of a helpless attempt to understand the incomprehensible events in Shreveport of the summer of 1873.
Today, historic preservationists have targeted Oakland Cemetery as being so significant to the city that efforts are ongoing to restore grave markers and tombs damaged by the passage of time. There is also the ongoing challenge of varying degrees of vandalism within the gates of the cemetery, something that has now raised the level of alarm among preservationists to the point that they are committed to implementing more aggressive measures, including monitoring the cemetery through security cameras. Oakland is the city’s most important historic treasure and preserving it for future generations should be a priority for the entire community. Beyond that, it is a special place set aside as a memorial for the dead – something that in every culture demands honor and respect.Historic Haunts of Shreveport is the name of a 2010 book published by The History Press (Charleston, SC), written by Dr. Gary Joiner and Dr. Cheryl White. The book explores the history of our city through its haunted folklore. Guided tours of sites in the book are ongoing and net proceeds benefit historic preservation at some of Shreveport’s greatest old sites. More information can be obtained by contacting Dr. White at firstname.lastname@example.org or Cheryl.White@lsus.edu. Click here to purchase a copy of the book.
Dr. Cheryl White is Assistant Professor of History at Louisiana State University at Shreveport. She is the author of the recently published biography, Confederate General Leonidas Polk: Louisiana’s Fighting Bishop, and is co-author of Historic Haunts of Shreveport and Wicked Shreveport, all from The History Press in Charleston, South Carolina.