So what else (or who else) is there to see at Oak Hill Cemetery? Trust me, there’s still a great deal.
You would expect any large Southern cemetery to have Confederate graves. But what about Union ones? At Oak Hill, that would be a yes.
Oak Hill actually has a GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) monument near the back wall. Let me explain for those who might not know exactly what the GAR was in case you encounter a grave located in a GAR plot.
The Grand Army of the Republic
In 1866, Union veterans of the Civil War organized into the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Membership was restricted to individuals who served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, or Revenue Cutter Service during the Civil War, limiting the lifespan of the GAR to 1956.
In 1881, the GAR formed the Sons of Veterans of the United States of America (SV) to carry on its traditions long after the GAR ceased to exist. Membership was open to any man who could prove ancestry to a member of the GAR or to a veteran eligible for GAR membership.
Oak Hill’s GAR monument was erected on April 27, 1891 when the state’s GAR convention took place in Birmingham. The convention was reported in the The Birmingham News and included erection of the new monument, witnessed by about 75 Union veterans. You can see on the monument that it was erected by Birmingham’s Gen. George A. Custer Chapter, Post 1.
It so happened that the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) were holding their own memorial celebration later that day. As you can imagine, their numbers were much higher than the GAR group. I wondered if the new monument would be mentioned by the press and it was.
I admit it, I was surprised to read that. But I shouldn’t have been. While tensions still existed between the two factions, I’d read that as the veterans aged and years passed, they met and swapped stories often at reunion events. Friendships were formed.
Oak Hill’s GAR monument was vandalized in the 1930s and in 1991, the eagle topping it was damaged beyond repair. As it happened, a re-dedication ceremony had just been held a few days before Sarah and I visited Oak Hill. The National Sons of Union Veterans furnished the funds for the restoration (including replacing the eagle) and the local chapter (Major General John T. Croxton, Camp 17) was in charge of overseeing the restoration.
There are 11 Union soldiers buried near the monument and one widow with an additional 26 Union veterans buried throughout the cemetery. Oak Hill determined that Union soldiers from eight states are buried there.
A Union Veteran in Alabama
You’ll notice in the photo above the grave of Corp. Charles Marion Robinson. His death certificate intrigued me because it said he died in Grand Rapids, Mich. but was buried at Oak Hill. How did that happen?
Born in Michigan in 1838, Charles married Martha Kingsbury in St. Joseph, Mich. in 1861. Charles served in the Eighth Michigan Cavalry, Co. F, during the Civil War. The Robinsons lived in Pulaski, Tenn. in the 1870s. Charles worked as a butcher and his son, Charles H., would became one as well.
At some point, the family moved to Ensley, Ala. (a neighborhood of Birmingham). Martha died on Aug. 27, 1894 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in an unmarked grave. The 1900 U.S. Census notes that Charles was living with his son, Charles, and his family just down the street from daughter, Carrie, who married Allen Muckenfuss. I’m guessing Charles was a member of the local GAR chapter.
Charles’ obituary solved my mystery. He was visiting family and friends in Grand Rapids, Mich. when he died of a cardiac thrombosis at age 56. His body was sent home for burial with his fellow Union veterans at Oak Hill Cemetery on June 30, 1904.
The O’Byrne Family
The monument for Irish immigrant Michael O’Byrne and his wife, Sarah, is rather striking. I didn’t know when I saw it at Oak Hill that I would see one with a statue almost exactly like it at Oak Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Ga. in 2020.
Born in 1830 in Ireland, Michael O’Byrne didn’t leave much of a paper trail. I don’t know exactly when he married Georgia native Sarah Taylor, who was 14 years his junior. By 1870, the couple was living in Eufaula, Ala. (about 175 miles away) and had four children. He is listed as a “merchant/grocer”. They had son, Willie, in 1878. The 1880 U.S. Census listed Charles as a “huckster”, a term for someone who sold fruits and vegetables in an open wagon.
At some point after 1880, the family moved to Birmingham. Michael died on April 5, 1893 at the age of 61. Oddly, his obituary states that he was a “pioneer” who came to Birmingham when it was a “struggling village”. Considering he didn’t live there until after 1880, that doesn’t make sense. It also states he was the brother of “our P.O. O’Byrne”. I did some research and P.O. O’Byrne (who did live and work in Eufaula and Birmingham) was 26 years younger than Michael O’Byrne. I think there may have been some confusion over exactly who Michael was.
Sarah O’Byrne died five years later at age 53 on Sept. 8, 1898.
On the base of their shared monument are these words:
In one path they walked, in one grave they sleep.
Father and mother, Oh, Jesus keep.
Civil Rights Pioneer
A number of notable people are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, from Alabama governors to a World War I Medal of Honor recipient. But one of the most important people buried at Oak Hill is pastor and civil rights activist Rev. Fred Lee Shuttlesworth. While his name is not as familiar as Dr. Martin Luther King or Rep. John Lewis, he played a key role in the American civil rights movement.
Born March 18, 1922 in Mount Meigs, Ala., Rev. Shuttlesworth moved to Birmingham as a child, where he lived with his mother, Alberta, and stepfather, William, a coal miner. He was licensed and ordained as a preacher in 1948, earning an AB from Selma University in 1951 and a BS from Alabama State College in 1953. Rev. Shuttlesworth was minister at First Baptist Church in Selma until 1952, and the next year was called to Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Rev. Shuttlesworth became involved in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1955. When Circuit Judge Walter B. Jones banned the NAACP from activity in the state in 1956, Shuttlesworth presided over a planning meeting for a new organization that became the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). He served as its president until 1969.
In November 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional, Rev. Shuttlesworth and the ACMHR moved to challenge segregation on Birmingham’s buses. The night before their campaign, a bomb exploded under Rev. Shuttlesworth’s parsonage at Bethel Baptist. The house was destroyed, but Rev. Shuttlesworth escaped unharmed. The next day, hundreds of protesters sat in the sections reserved for whites on Birmingham buses. Twenty-one participants were arrested and convicted, and the ACMHR filed suit in federal court to strike down the local law mandating segregation.
Establishing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
Rev. Shuttlesworth joined Dr. Martin Luther King and C. K. Steele in planning a conference of Southern black leaders in January 1957. Held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the meeting laid the foundation for what would become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). At a meeting later that year, Rev. Shuttlesworth became the SCLC’s first secretary.
In 1963, the SCLC united with the ACMHR to protest segregation in Birmingham. SCLC leaders met in January to plan the Birmingham Campaign, known as “Project C” (C for confrontation). Rev. Shuttlesworth issued his Birmingham Manifesto and on April 6, 1963 led the campaign’s first march on city hall.
As the campaign continued, Dr. King and Rev. Shuttlesworth butted heads. As a result of injuries during a march, Shuttlesworth was in the hospital during negotiations that produced a one-day halt to demonstrations. In addition to disagreeing with the halt, Rev. Shuttlesworth didn’t like being left out of the decision. Dr. King, however, persuaded him to publicly support the action.
The Birmingham Campaign ended two days later, with an agreement between the city’s business community and local black leaders that included a commitment to the desegregation of public accommodations, a committee to ensure non-discriminatory hiring practices in Birmingham, and cooperation in releasing jailed protesters.
In the mid-1960s, Rev. Shuttlesworth established the Greater New Light Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the 1980s, he founded the Shuttlesworth Housing Foundation, providing grants for home ownership.
Rev. Shuttlesworth received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Bill Clinton in 2001, with the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport named in his honor in 2008. Rev. Shuttlesworth also became president of the SCLC mid-decade, although he soon left due to disagreements with the internal workings of the organization.
After a year of poor health, Rev. Shuttlesworth died on Oct. 5, 2011 at age 89.
So will there be a Part IV to this series? Yes, indeed…