Sunday, June 16, 2024

LSUS faculty play key role in planning, construction of Shreveport yellow fever memorial 

by BIZ Magazine

“We no longer have funerals. People are blotted out of existence.”  That was an observation made in the upstart Daily Times (now the Shreveport Times) near the height of the Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1873. 

That epidemic killed one-quarter of Shreveport’s population in the third-worst yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history. More than 1,200 died in a 12-week span between August and November of that year. 

The daily death rate became so high that funerals could no longer be carried out, and the City of Shreveport buried more than 800 of yellow fever’s victims in a mass grave in City Cemetery (now Oakland Cemetery). 

For 150 years, those in the mound weren’t named. 

But two LSUS history professors were key cogs in dreaming up a memorial that names 740 of the buried. 

That memorial was unveiled Saturday as a highlight of the months-long commemoration of the epidemic 150 years ago, providing a tribute to those that were previously not memorialized. 

Seven large plaques with the names of the fallen circle a tall gray obelisk on top of the mound. 

“It’s truly wonderful to see such a large group of people honoring a large group of people,” said Shreveport mayor Tom Arceneaux to a gathering of about 200 at the memorial. “For 150 years, there’s been no dedicated memorial to offer fitting tribute to these people, and today, we correct that oversight.” 

Religious leaders from the seven existing Shreveport churches and temples in 1873 prayed for the victims amid thoughts of being “united by our humanity.”  

Leaders from the Antioch Baptist Church, the B’nai Zion Temple, the Church of the Holy Cross, the Catholic Diocese of Shreveport, First Baptist Church, First Methodist Church, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Little Union Baptist Church and St. Mark’s Cathedral offered prayers and reflections. 

“The people buried here come from all walks of life – they are buried here without regard to social status, to religion or race,” said Paul Strickland, president of the Oakland Cemetery and Preservation Society. “This memorial honors the people buried here from the 1873 epidemic but also honors earlier victims of yellow fever. 

“There were so many people involved in this project, but I don’t know if any of this comes to fruition without Dr. Cheryl White.” 

White, an LSUS history professor, spearheaded the committee that planned the memorial and the commemoration events happening this fall. The memorial took two years to plan and fundraise and six months to build. 

White said the epidemic was the “most transformative of event in Shreveport’s history” earlier Saturday in a symposium titled “Yellow Fever: 150 Years Later.” 

Fellow LSUS history professor Dr. Gary Joiner, who is chair of the history department, led the research to name the souls buried in the mound. 

Joiner used the daily reporting from The Daily Times, a crude 1906 map of Oakland Cemetery, death cards housed in the Northwest Louisiana Archives and a dash of logical creativity to name about 740 of the approximately 800 buried in the mound. 

He and a group of students started work in 2006 as they mapped out Oakland Cemetery and identified all known persons buried in actual graves. 

While The Times did publish a daily death report, the newspaper didn’t have complete records because the epidemic affected their own staff. 

And because Shreveport, a bustling commerce town, didn’t want to shut itself down at the onset of the epidemic, the earliest deaths were recorded as something other than yellow fever. 

“There was a baby who died because of ‘teething,’” Joiner said. “Another died of breakbone fever, which was a thing but that wasn’t the cause of death in this situation. 

“If you just read the daily list of the dead, you’d be missing tons of people. But there were society columns and other stories that mentioned people dying who weren’t in the official list of the dead.” 

Joiner built a database of those who died – all but two in that 12-week span died of yellow fever (the other two were gunshot victims) – and used records of those buried in actual plots or that were moved to other cemeteries to determine who was actually buried in the mound. 

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