As I have mentioned before, traveling to new places and meeting interesting people is something I really enjoy. Recently I took a journey through a beautiful city park closer to home, but no less exciting with provocative people who moved me. The always enlightening history professor, Dr. Cheryl White, led a tour in Oakland Cemetery on the edge of downtown Shreveport, Louisiana. She shared facts that most of us do not know about the building of communities and commerce in Northwest Louisiana.
American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin said, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
The oldest marked grave in Oakland is dated 1842, and in 1847 the cemetery became the property of the city of Shreveport. This important landmark is the memorial park for many of the area’s pioneers with captivating stories. Some of the historical accounts that Dr. White shared made us laugh while others caused us to reflect on previous times.
One of the most fascinating people I was introduced to during the tour was Annie McCune. She was probably the best known woman in Shreveport in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. She was born in Ireland in 1848 and came to America landing in New Orleans alone at a very early age. It is believed Annie came north to Shreveport with the Union Soldiers. By 1873, she owned a “boarding house” in St. Paul’s Bottoms on Common Street, between Milam and Texas. Perhaps you have heard Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter’s song, “Mister Tom Hughes’ Town” which is also known as “Fannin Street” and “Cry for Me” about his connection to Shreveport’s St. Paul’s Bottoms neighborhood, in 1982 renamed Ledbetter Heights.
Prostitution was legal in Louisiana and in a few other places around the United States until 1917. This area was the frontier – the Wild West – and Shreveport had the largest Red Light District for a city its size in all of the United States. St. Paul’s Bottoms was a natural bottom land…muddy…dirty…and sadly, we have lost most of our landmarks in that area. You never lose the effects of the past, but you can lose your understanding. Not having the structures and not knowing the stories from this time and place mean that we do not fully realize our present circumstances.
In 1873 with the yellow fever epidemic griping the city, it seems that Annie converted her boarding house into a hospital. Over 800 people who died during the epidemic are buried in a mass grave on a hill in Oakland Cemetery. Goodloe Stuck wrote a book in 1981 titled “Shreveport Madam” shinning a different light on Annie McCune. He revealed a madam with a big heart and one of the biggest contributors to local charities.
Prostitutes in the nineteenth century were successful in the lawless boom towns. Women had no rights and could not own property, but madams owned valuable real estate and provided free health care for their employees. In addition, they were usually very generous in helping fund the expansion and improvements in the frontier cities. No one is glorifying their lifestyle, but no one can deny that these were strong women in a male dominated world who contributed to the foundation that we all enjoy today.
Buried near Annie is Army Lt. Eugene Augustus Woodruff who gave his life to Shreveport. Woodruff died on Sept. 30, 1873, two months before of his 32nd birthday, caring for Shreveport citizens who had yellow fever. Capt. Charles W. Howell, responsible for the Corps of Engineers in Louisiana in 1873, sent Woodruff from New Orleans to supervise the clearing of the great log raft on the Red River. Woodruff left his crew on the river to find a survey party in Shreveport, but when he reached the city, he realized he was in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. He did not return to his camp, but stayed in the city going door to door delivering food and medicine. Capt. Howell wrote of Woodruff, “His name should be cherished, not only by his many personal friends, but by the Army, as one who lived purely, labored faithfully, and died in the path of duty.” The engineers in his crew broke through the raft about a month later clearing the river for navigation.
There were so many characters and so many stories. On a hill was the resting place of the mother of Shreveport and Bossier City, and in a valley were relatives of a president of the United States. Victorian cast iron grave markers speckled the landscape of grey gravestones with intricate carvings and deep meanings. There were deaths by duels and from illnesses that are little more serious than a common cold today.
Leaving Oakland Cemetery, I went west on Milam, taking a left and then a right into a neighborhood I had not visited before this evening. As I drove past historical homes in one of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods of its time, I passed a prostitute. I looked at her as she turned to reveal her breasts then covered herself when she saw my face. I looked at her eyes, smiled a sad smile…and kept driving. Immediately I thought of Annie.
Oakland Cemetery has been neglected and even vandalized through the years, but good people are working hard to protect and restore this great monument of cultural history. You can learn more about Oakland Cemetery on their website, http://www.oaklandcemeteryla.org/Index.aspx. If you are interested in tours, you will find up-to-date information on the Facebook page, Historic Haunts of Shreveport. For a suggested donation of $10 per person, you will be taken back to a period of intrigue and refined sensibilities. Your much-needed gift will benefit ongoing cemetery preservation.