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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A Silent Witness


Yellow Fever Memorial to be part of city commemorations

In the fall of 1873, the city of Shreveport faced a decision of grim efficiency.

With the death toll from yellow fever mounting daily to unprecedented numbers, including many city workers involved in daily operations of basic services and infrastructure, there was a single trench opened at the City Cemetery (today Oakland Cemetery) for mass burials. The area of the cemetery used for this purpose was where some victims of previous epidemics rested and had also been used for “pauper burials” going back many years in city history. The location is near the southwest corner of the cemetery, not far from the Milam Street entrance, marked today with a simple commemorative bronze plaque that the Colonial Dames placed in 1992. The mass grave contains the remains of over 800 people, many of whom were victims of the 1873 epidemic.

For 150 years, the mass grave has been a stark testament to the devastating nature of the 1873 epidemic, ranked the third worst in United States history. The victims interred there were buried with no ceremony, no ritual and no lasting or permanent memorial to them on the site. That will change this fall when a new memorial monument will be dedicated atop the mound, with a construction plan that includes listing all of the names known from the public record. Construction should be complete by early October, in time to mark the 150th anniversary of the peak of the epidemic. The monument, at a cost of approximately $250,000, was partially funded by the city of Shreveport, with the remainder raised in private contributions from the community.

In order to ensure that no human remains or grave features will be disturbed during the construction phase, members of the Oakland Cemetery Preservation Society and faculty of Louisiana State University at Shreveport carried out an investigation using ground-penetrating radar equipment. This process allowed investigators to determine with great specificity the exact location of graves and the depths of burials within the cemetery, especially in and near the Yellow Fever Mound. The investigation revealed that there are burials at a maximum depth of approximately 20 feet in the mound, and a three-foot clay cap covers its surface.

When completed, the memorial monument will cover the entire surface area of the mound and features a design of 12 concentric rings, one for each week of the 1873 epidemic. The names will be inscribed on bronze plaques on pedestals around the monument, and the center point will feature an obelisk with an eternal flame. Also interred in the mound are people who died of other causes during the time of the epidemic, and they are also commemorated in the listing of the dead.

The 150th anniversary this fall will allow the city to memorialize these victims properly and provide an opportunity for the broader community to reflect upon this significant event in Shreveport’s history. The fact that such a mass grave exists is testimony to the chaotic conditions of the time when the city lost one-quarter of its population within weeks. In 1873, no one understood the cause of the illness (it is a mosquito-borne virus that is not person-to-person transmittable), but there was a general understanding that when the first frost of fall arrived, the illness would abate. Indeed, the last reported cases in Shreveport during 1873 occurred in mid-November, after which time the city gradually returned to its pre-epidemic business and commerce. In the meantime, the Yellow Fever Mound has been a silent witness to this history. This fall, the dedication of the new monument will be an appropriate and timely opportunity to honor all those interred within the mass grave and recognize those previously nameless in the oldest city cemetery.


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