DOUGLAS — The Bronzeville Historical Society will hold a ceremony Thursday to bless “The 80 Acres of Hell” — the site of a former Civil War POW camp — before planting seeds in its heritage garden at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb.
“Six thousand-plus people died right here, that’s why we keep blessing this place,” said Sherry Williams, president and founder of the historical society.
Williams is hosting the 11 a.m. ceremony at 636 E. 35th St. to honor the 129 slaves owned by Douglas before she plants an African-American heritage garden on the site.
The event also will commemorate the Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, called by many "80 acres of Hell" because of the overcrowding and mistreatment.
“People don’t really remember Douglas as a slaveholder,” Williams said of the Illinois senator who famously challenged Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election of 1860. “This is where his wealth came from.”
Douglas is buried on the site of his old Chicago farm, which was commandeered by the Union Army for a military base and hospital at the start of the war.
Williams said she plans to read the names of all 129 slaves owned by Douglas before putting the first collard greens, corn or eggplant seeds in the ground.
She also is planting chokeberry and elderberry around the tomb to attract migrating birds, for her, a symbol of the Northern migration of African-Americans from the South between the end of the Civil War through the 1950s.
She is hoping others appreciate the gesture and said she recently asked a school group what would make both people and birds migrate.
“Out of the mouth of babes, a fourth-grader said, ‘War.’ This little lady speaks volumes just saying one word,” Williams said. “Birds leave because they’re looking for food and African-Americans left to find jobs, in essence to find food.”
Williams hopes to recreate the bird sanctuary she helped establish in Pullman, which now is home to more than 150 species of birds. Last year, the Bronzeville Historical Society moved to the caretakers building abutting the Douglas tomb in what Williams sees as a twist of fate.
“It kind of chose me,” Williams said, glancing over at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Cardinal Meyer Center across 35th Street.
During the Civil War, the building was a hospital for captured Confederate soldiers. More than 27,000 people were held at the camp, including Mississippi state Sen. S.G. Cooper, whose family owned William’s great-grandmother as a slave.