The story of Burr Oak Cemetery is a bittersweet one. Founded in the early 20th century as one of the only places Chicagoland's African-American community could bury their loved ones at the time, it soon gained notoriety as the resting place of well-known musicians (i.e. Willie Dixon, Dinah Washington), athletes (i.e. Ezzard Charles, J. Mayo Williams, Jimmie Crutchfield), and civil rights icon Emmett Till. Many African-American families from the area buried their loved ones there, being that it was peaceful place that reflected the heritage, hardship, and opportunity of their community.
Generally speaking, cemeteries aren't usually considered newsworthy. They are quiet places cascaded with remnants of memories. Burr Oak Cemetery, although well-known within the area and its prime community, was no different. That was, until a horrific scandal rocked the airwaves in July 2009.
It was revealed that a small group of staff members from the cemetery had been digging up graves and dumping the remains in a mass grave in the back of the cemetery. Done to make more room, and therefore more money, the effect was an estimated 200-300 "misplaced" bodies. Even Emmett Till's original casket was found open and dumped near the mass grave, succumbing to animal nesting activity. Many more graves were discovered to have been stacked on top of older graves. Upon the release of the news, families from all over the country swarmed the cemetery, searching for answers. Ultimately, many were unable to locate the graves or remains of their loved ones.
However, the story doesn't end there. Although it's been out of the popular news for a while, the trials and tribulations of family members with loved ones buried at the cemetery are far from over. Our film "Beyond the Divide: the Burr Oak Cemetery Story" is going to explore the history of the cemetery, investigate the 2009 scandal, and uncover what, if anything, has been done to rectify the nightmares of those affected, amongst the ensuing legal and bureaucratic battles.
Our goal is to produce a feature length documentary film which is suitable for local broadcast and film festival distribution. We will consider this film most successful, however, if we are able to really integrate it into programming at educational and community centers, thus provoking people from all different backgrounds to contemplate the answers to the following questions:
1. What is our responsibility to the deceased? Why should they not be forgotten?
2. What sacrifices have your ancestors made that have had a positive influence on our life today?
3. Why is it important to consider the contributions the deceased made in their lifetime?
4. Despite some previous protests regarding poor maintenance at the cemetery, the scandal had gone on for years unnoticed. What is local government and law enforcement's duty to ensure cemeteries are properly maintained?
5. What are the parallels between the disrespect endured by the deceased during and after their lifetimes, and their living relatives? How could this be rectified in the future?
6. Apart from memorializing your loved ones at a cemetery, what are other ways you carry on the memories of your ancestors? How do you and your family show appreciation for their contributions?
7. What are your family traditions? Why are these traditions important?
8. Even for those who didn't have family buried at Burr Oak Cemetery, how do you think the scandal impacted the African-American community? What was the real significance of the cemetery for the community as a whole?
What We Need & What You Get
Through our IndieGoGo fundraising campaign, we will be able to cover the following production costs: employing local film crew, purchasing/licensing archival materials, covering transportation costs, and maintaining equipment.
Please refer to the pledge levels on the right of the page to see the corresponding incentives.
Other Ways You Can Help
Please "share" this effort on social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, and feel free to e-mail the link to this campaign to anybody you think may be interested in supporting us. To learn more about our production company and it's other services/projects, please click here.
Thanks for your support!!!
Team on This Campaign:
Naomi is the director and co-producer of the film.
This organization is our 501(c)3 fiscal sponsor.
Cozetta Smith is a project intern for The Media Elixir. She is helping out with research and outreach for the project.
Ian Wellman is the location sound recordist for the film.
Ed Boone is the co-producer for the film. He is one of the main interviewees and is providing a lot of connections for other potential interviewees.