116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
We went to Oak Hill Cemetery on a lovely Sunday afternoon with Memorial Day on our minds.
After all, the cemetery is the final resting place of many individuals who served in armed forces. There is, for example, a collection of small white headstones marked by a tall stone monument dedicated to “Our fallen comrades.” It dates from 1889.
According to the cemetery’s website, more than 280 known Civil War veterans are buried at the city’s oldest cemetery, established in 1854 at 1795 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids.
That number includes George S. Bushnell, the last Civil War veteran to die in Cedar Rapids.
Bushnell, who lied about his age to enlist in Company E, 46th Iowa Infantry, when he was just 15, died at the age of 96 on Dec. 29, 1943. It’s amazing to think that Bushnell was in uniform during the Civil War and lived to see the bombing of Pearl Harbor and then a second world war.
Of course, the Civil War is hardly the only conflict represented by the honored dead at Oak Hill Cemetery.
On our meanderings, we saw graves for those who served in both world wars, Korea and Vietnam.
We were particularly struck by the marker for Sgt. Donald L. Baker, a Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart recipient who was classified as missing in action near Haman, South Korea, in Setptember 1950 during the Korean War.
Baker’s remains were identified in early 2018, and he was laid to rest in Oak Hill in June of that year.
His grave is located quite near another marker that caught our attention and expanded the ways in which we were thinking about the cost of freedom.
Ellen Taylor was, as her memorial marker explains, “Born into slavery, March 1830 in Virginia | Died free, July 1901 in Iowa.”
Taylor was Cedar Rapids’ first Black citizen. She was honored in 1999 with the dedication of her marker as part of the groundbreaking ceremony for what is now the African American Museum of Iowa.
We should note that Oak Hill is the final resting place of a number of Black community members who broke boundaries and pushed the community forward.
They include Dorothy Robinson, the first Black nurse to work in a Cedar Rapids hospital; Viola Gibson, who resurrected the Cedar Rapids chapter of the NAACP in response to the exclusion of Blacks from Ellis Park Pool; and Dr. Percy and Lileah Harris. Dr. Harris was the first Black physician in Cedar Rapids, and he and his family were at the forefront of civil rights advances in the city.
Sgt. Baker, too, was Black.
The proximity of Baker’s marker to Taylor’s marker seemed right to us. One served his country on the battlefield, and the other contributed to the long and incomplete process of creating a more perfect union simply through the act of taking up residence in Cedar Rapids.
When Sgt. Baker was honored in 2018, his niece Kaggie Baker spoke with The Gazette’s Alison Gowans. Baker’s comments on that day acknowledged the connection between a person like Ellen Taylor and Baker’s heroic uncle.
“I'm sad, in a way, that he's gone, and I didn't get to see him growing up. But they gave him great honors today. I don't know whether to cry, or laugh, or jump, or get happy,” she said. “I'm glad I lived to see this day. You know, we were living in slavery, but today we're free, and we're honored.”
Our shared story
In a cemetery perhaps best known for its impressive monuments honoring many of the city’s founders and leaders, the headstones marking the graves of those who served their country and of those whose country hasn’t always served them may seem modest by comparison.
But as we expanded our thinking beyond Memorial Day to include Juneteenth and the Fourth of July — our summertime trifecta of celebrations of freedom and sacrifice — we were cognizant of the honor due to each individual who has contributed to our shared story, not just here in Linn County but throughout the country.
High school senior Jessica Cline wins awards for historical research and presentation. Her dad, writer Rob Cline, does not. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com.