On Memorial Day, Your Ward Room Blogger visited Oak Woods Cemetery to pay respects at the Confederate Mound. The final resting place of 6,000 Confederate prisoners of war who died of smallpox, typhoid and exposure at Chicago’s Camp Douglas, the mound is the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere. It’s surrounded on four sides by cannons and bears a plaque listing the names of hundreds of soldiers whose bodies were identified.
On the way out, I visited the cemetery’s best-known political gravesites. The tomb of the late mayor Harold Washington (which had more visitors than the Confederate Mound, even on Memorial Day), and the not-yet-grave of Roland Burris, Esq.
Burris built an elaborate tomb for himself and his wife, declaring himself a “Trail Blazer,” and listing his many achievements. The tomb became nationally famous as an example of Pharaohnic egotism after Burris was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
As the first African-American elected to statewide office in the state that’s elected the most African-American statewide officials, Burris was indeed a trailblazer. But there’s a flaw in his tombstone design that reflects a gap between his hopes and the way his career turned out. The center slab of granite is titled “First African-American In Illinois To Become,” and lists these achievements:
- S.I.U. Exchange Student to University of Hamburg, Germany 1959-60
- President of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers 1985-86
- President of the National Association State Comptrollers 1981-82
- National Bank Examiner U.S. Treasury Department (First Black In The Nation) 1963-64
- Vice-President of Continental Illinois National Bank 1964-73
- Illinois State Comptroller 1979-91
- Illinois Attorney General 1991-95
Above that last item, Burris left a blank spot, which he expected to fill with “Governor of Illinois,” an office for which he campaigned, unsuccessfully, three times. Most senators would put that atop their tombstones. But Burris can’t, because he wasn’t the first African-American in Illinois to hold that office. He was the third, after Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama. He’s going to have to carve “U.S. Senator” on one of the side panels, which list “Other Major Accomplishments,” including “Board of Trustees of the Financial Accounting Foundation (First Black In The Nation) 1991-94.”
(Oak Woods Cemetery seems a little embarrassed by the Burris tomb. When I asked an official, “Do you have Roland Burris?” he responded, “We don’t have him. His tomb is here.” Then he handed me a tour guide which included the graves of Washington, John H. Johnson, William Hale Thompson and Jesse Owens -- but not Burris.)
Burris is, of course, very much alive and occupied with his Burris School of Politics, which is profiled by DNAInfo today
. Lesson one should be: wait until your career is over to carve your tombstone.