SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – There is a special place in Shreveport that will honor the dead of the past.
In the city’s oldest cemetery which was established in 1842 lies the final resting place of a major event in Shreveport’s history.
“So where we are standing is actually the site where the city opened up a single trench that serves as a mass grave for over 800 people,” said Dr. Cheryl White, professor of History LSUS.
Dr. White is a local historian who recounts when a viral epidemic led to an unprecedented death toll that halted the growing city. Yellow Fever struck Shreveport in 1873, spreading so fast the city could not keep up with the sheer number of dead.
“So the city council in mid-September of 1873 made the decision that for the most efficient disposal of the dead and the healthiest for the community was to simply open a trench and lay people in here,” Dr. White said.
Known as the Yellow Fever Mound, Dr. White explains it was a major project of burial as deep as 20 feet below ground.
“It seems hard for us to imagine today but in the time this was a very efficient way to deal with what was obviously a problem when you have dozens of people dying everyday,” Dr. White said.
More than 800 of the dead were placed in a mass grave inside Oakland Cemetery in 1873.
“This was the place that they buried people during the peak of the epidemic. Unless you had special access to family plot you were likely to end up in this mass grave. So these were citizens of Shreveport,” Dr. White said.
People from all backgrounds are buried together.
“One thing we can say about the Yellow Fever mound in Oakland Cemetery is that it is a great equalizer. There are people here who are black, white, young, old, Jewish, Protestant, no faith perhaps at all,” Dr. White said.
The public health emergency of Shreveport’s past put the city’s future in question.
“Shreveport lost one quarter of its population within 12 weeks. It was a dramatic population loss,” White said.
Dr. White is a part of the Oakland Cemetery Preservation Society that began a project last year to raise funds and design a monument to honor those dead.
“To memorialize these people in a lasting and appropriate way,” she said.
The preservation society partnered with the city to allocated funds to build the Yellow Fever Monument that will list every known name of those who are buried in the mound.
“One thing people will notice when they come out is that there are no names. The names are pretty much lost to the historical record is concerned. Except for the Shreveport Times that kept a daily list of the dead. So using that daily list of the dead. We were able to recreate a list of almost all the names. Except the ones known only to God as we say and they will be memorialized here in a major monument that will cover the entire top of the mound that will have an eternal flame and list the name of everyone who is known.”
Dr. White explains it’s also needed because human remains have come to the surface in recent years.
“People were not buried in coffins. They were simply buried in whatever they were wearing at the time that they died. Until the city put a clay cap on top of this monument several years ago, that was a problem. We were having human remains come to the surface. The last time this happened was about four years ago when remains came up near the Milam Street wall of the cemetery of a young girl. So this seems to be not only a long overdue memorial but also a very practical way of ensuring the integrity of the burials here.”
The monument will reflect on a time everyone can now relate to. The Oakland Preservation Society began working on the project during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was really interesting to be working on this particular memorial project at the peak of a pandemic. We were in the Covid-19 pandemic at the time we were trying to memorialize an epidemic here in Shreveport. There are so many striking parallels. I think that the lesson that really stands out for everyone is that whenever we are faced with situations like this we always have a choice. You see it play out in the little vignettes of Shreveport history that were people who decide to do the heroic thing and stay to help others, and you have people decided to leave. Therefore not only risk themselves but other people. So I think that we see that across history. Most recently mirrored for us in the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The City of Shreveport will host a dedication ceremony on October 7 that marks the peak of the 1873 epidemic.
“It is a project that is 150 years over due because we will this fall be in the 150 anniversary of that epidemic.”
A mound containing a tragic past that will become a modern monument to honor Shreveport’s early citizens who leave us with a resilient legacy.
“This was such a significant and transformative event in Shreveport history. That for the city to recognize the need for us to do this I think is important because it is a place in our history where things could have gone a different way. Shreveport to have lost such a large percentage of its population could have easily not survived as a city. But what we see is that in the next decade the city is back to a booming economy. We are prosperous. We had a larger population than ever before by 1800. So I think it was such a significant turning point that the city acknowledges that. The city also realizes that this is a place where anniversaries provide a natural opportunity to stop and not just remember, but reflect on the lessons.”
Dr. White hosts tours of Oakland Cemetery where you can learn more about the Yellow Fever Mound and more interesting parts of Shreveport’s history. To learn more visit their website.