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1892: A Vanishing Cemetery

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In August of 1892, the inhabitants of the former Chinatown in Chicago's Loop held an elaborate ceremony to dedicate a new shrine built in the "Chinese burying-ground," in Rosehill Cemetery on the city's north side.  The shrine was described by the Chicago Tribune as "a queer-looking affair, of a style of architecture little known in Chicago, and is built of granite and granolithic.  It faces the east, and, from the base to the top of the ball, which surmounts the structure, it measures fifteen feet.  It is eight feet broad and two feet thick ...  At each end is a furnace in the form of an obelisk, about two feet square at the base and eight feet high ..."  The shrine lay "just west of the north entrance to the cemetery" and "to the east of the 150 x 20 foot plot of land reserved by the Chinese for their dead."

Another newspaper article, presumably describing the same piece of land, states that plots 1-52 in Section 6 of the cemetery were purchased for $2392 by the Soon On Tong organization, with the help of Hip Lung (a grocer), Chow Tai (a druggist), and Sam Moi (a cigar manufacturer).  This was a lot of money by 1892 standards.  The Chinese community must have felt they had to pay it anyway because Rosehill was one of the few cemeteries in the city without religious restrictions on who could be buried there.  Non-Christians, including Jews, were usually refused burial in Catholic and Protestant cemeteries of the day.  Adding in the factor of racial prejudice, it was not easy for Chinese to be buried anywhere.

Thus Rosehill offered a solution to a serious problem.  But the question is, what happened to the shrine and the land?  A few weeks ago we walked over the area just west of the cemetery's north entrance.  We did not find the slightest trace of even a Chinese grave marker, much less a granite and granolithic shrine fifteen feet high.  We talked with two helpful Rosehill staff.  They are certain that no such shrine has existed in recent decades, and most of the Chinese graves they know of are quite recent, dating to the 1990s.

The earliest Chinese grave we found at Rosehill was that of Mary Goo (1898-1920), wife of Tom Y. Chan.  This is several years older than the grave of the well-known restaurateur Chin Foin in the south central part of the cemetery, which we once thought might be the oldest surviving Chinese grave in Chicago.  Mary Goo's grave is not only older but close to the north gate, although to the east rather than to the west of it.

Could her grave mark the location of the former Chinese area at Rosehill?  Possibly, although the surrounding graves tend to be Scandinavian and of a similar age.  We prefer the hypothesis that the Tribune's reporters could tell east from west even back in 1892 and that the graves and shrine in the former Chinese burial area were removed at some point in the following 113 years. 

Jack Simpson sent CAMOC a Tribune article from 1926.  It says that the remains of 412 Chinese had just been removed from Rosehill for shipment to (and reburial in) China.  The removal seems to have been done with Chinese consent.  According to one Louis Ding of 2312 S. Wentworth Ave, this happened every ten years. "If the dead Chinamen's relatives live here the bodies usually are left here, but if not their souls' happiness depends on internment in their native soil, he said."

But another Tribune article from 1944, sent by Andrea Stamm, suggests that the consent may have been forced.  The article quotes the superintendent of the cemetery as saying that for the past quarter-century new Chinese burials had not been allowed.  He also said that the cemetery had been buying graves back from Chinese and presumably digging up the bodies.  Hence, it seems likely that the 1926 removals were a step in the cemetery's campaign to remove the former Chinese burial area entirely.

The reasons for the removal are discussed elsewhere on this website.  It is enough here to say that the reasons were more or less purely racist.

Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 29 1892 p 1; Jan 21 1926, p 1; Aug 29 1944, p 26.

Information credits go to Jack Simpson (Newberry Library), Andrea Stamm (Northwestern U. Library) and Chuimei Ho (CAMOC)