by Eric J. Brock
On the very edge of Shreveport's business district is the old Oakland Cemetery, resting place of Shreveport's pioneers for over 150 years. The cemetery, located just west of downtown at Milam Street and Grand Avenue, is not well known to most Shreveporters, nevertheless, it is the city's oldest and arguably most important landmark.
Unfortunately, Oakland Cemetery has suffered from vandalism and neglect over the years. The oldest marked burial is dated 1842; in 1847 the cemetery became city property. As early as the 1880s newspaper editorials complained of neglect there, in the form of uncut grass and weeds. Today the main gate at Milam and Grand, having fallen into disrepair over many years of neglect, is finally about to undergo restoration in 2008. Still, problems remain: several of the alleys inside the cemetery are virtually impassable. The cemetery gates are not closed at night as they were for most of Oakland’s history, and although Oakland is over ten acres in size, there are only six street lamps to provide all the lighting at night.
Very few burials have taken place at Oakland Cemetery in the last seventy years, which explains its neglect (out of sight is out of mind, as the saying goes). A few burials continue to be made here but only one or two a year on average. No more plots are sold at Oakland, all the space in the cemetery having been purchased long ago. Even the ground which appears empty is an illusion for there are many unmarked graves at Oakland Cemetery and there are, therefore, very few spaces for new graves to be dug. It is believed that there are nearly as many unmarked graves here as marked ones.
Within the surrounding walls of patent stone (formed concrete made to imitate rusticated limestone) are the final resting places of sixteen of Shreveport's mayors as well as officials from every level of government from the antebellum period, the Confederacy, Reconstruction, and after. Among those who rest here are Colonel Leon D. Marks, a hero of the defense of Vicksburg who fell in the siege of that city; Justice Thomas T. Land of the State Supreme Court, and Mary Cane, an early businesswoman said to be Shreveport's first female settler. Also buried here are two grandsons of President Zachary Taylor and nephews of President Jefferson Davis; sons of Confederate General Richard Taylor, they died in Shreveport in 1863 but their graves are unmarked. Additionally, in unmarked graves are Martha Bowie Sterrett, sister of Jim Bowie who invented the Bowie knife, and her husband Sheriff Alexander B. Sterrett, the first sheriff of Caddo Parish. A number of casualties of the Civil War are interred here also, as well as at least three hundred veterans of that conflict.
About eight-hundred victims of the great yellow fever epidemic of 1873 are buried at Oakland, most in a soon to be marked mass grave near the Milam Street side of the cemetery. Victims of other yellow fever epidemics (1853, 1858, 1867) are also buried here. There is a large Jewish section, opened in 1858 (though Jewish gravestones can be found in the general nonsectarian part of the cemetery dating from as early as 1853) and many pioneer merchants and businessmen can be found commemorated there. There are also Masonic and Odd Fellows sections, attesting to the strength of secret societies among the city's founders. Many freedmen, slaves, and pioneers of the post-bellum black community of Shreveport find their final resting places here also. Prominent among these are Alfred Legardy, a Reconstruction era city councilman who continued to be elected by a white majority even after the end of Reconstruction, and Dr. Dickerson Alphnse Smith, Shreveport’s first black physician. Dr. Smith’s mother, philanthropist Amanda Clark, who was born a slave, is buried near her son.
Overall, however, the cemetery is the final resting place of thousands of ordinary citizens, white and black, Christian and Jew, free and slave, native and foreign born. Men, women, and children from all walks of life who created a city. Shreveport is their legacy and from their last resting place can be seen the skyline of its modern central business district -- there they lie, right in the midst of it. A fitting epitaph for those who sleep here is truly found in the old proverb: "if you seek their monument, look about you."