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Not many funeral homes double as Civil War sites—especially in Chicago. But until closing in 2007, Griffin Funeral Home did just that.
Located in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the funeral home was situated on the site of Camp Douglas, a Union training ground and POW camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Established by the Union Army in 1861, the camp expanded to hold as many as 12,000 Confederate prisoners—more than double its capacity—before it was closed at the end of the war. Around 4,500 prisoners died of diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, and smallpox. (Most of the bodies were later buried at Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side in what some say is the biggest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere.)
This history was largely overlooked until it came to the attention of Ernest Griffin, the owner of Griffin Funeral Home and whose papers can be found at the Newberry.
One of six children, Griffin was born in Chicago in 1912 to parents who ran a South Side funeral home. Intent on joining the family business, he graduated from the Worsham College of Mortuary Science and began working at the funeral home in 1933, taking the reins from his father in 1947. In 1969, he moved the business from a location on Michigan Avenue to 3232 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in Bronzeville.
Griffin ran a successful business—he hosted funerals for many Black celebrities, including Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, Olympic star Jesse Owens, and Robert Lawrence, Jr., the first Black US astronaut—but he also found time to explore his family history. In the course of these explorations, he made a remarkable discovery: his grandfather, Charles Griffin, had served in the Union Army’s 29th Colored Regiment Company B and trained at Camp Douglas—which turned out to have been located on the Bronzeville site of his funeral home.
Prompted by these discoveries, Griffin developed a strong interest in the Civil War. He was soon devoting his free time to researching the conflict and participating in Civil War reenactments around the country. Then, in 1990, he decided to go a step further by erecting a memorial on the site of Griffin Funeral Home.
Designed to honor his grandfather as well as soldiers on both sides of the war—including the Confederate troops who had died at Camp Douglas—his Heritage Memorial Wall included a glass case displaying Civil War documents and memorabilia, a fountain pool, and a plaque. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Griffin explained at the time that “to the best of our knowledge, it is the only memorial or monument in the country to a black Civil War soldier.”
The opening ceremony that May was a large affair. Inaugurated by a cannon blast, and attended by over 500 visitors, the ceremony included then-Alderman Bobby Rush and Mayor Richard M. Daley.
But the site also became mired in controversy when Griffin decided to hoist a Confederate battle flag at the memorial. In an interview, Griffin stated his belief that “the flag is not a symbol of hate. It is a symbol of respect for a dead human being.” Many disagreed, and the flag was repeatedly torn down, leading Griffin to defend his memorial in the Chicago Defender, the city’s largest Black newspaper.
Griffin died in 1995; the Heritage Memorial Wall remained open until 2007, when his daughters decided to close the Griffin Funeral Home—and the memorial with it.
By Matthew Clarke