The best “classrooms” in Forest Park are our sprawling cemeteries. So when college professor Joseph Almaoui asked me to accompany his students on a tour of the Forest Home (FHC) cemetery, I was delighted. Mr. Almaoui was accompanied by his colleagues Steven Elfinger and Joy Kibir and about ten eighth grade students.
We met at Forest Park Middle School and walked to FHC. We first visited the graves of the Roma and discussed their practice of leaving gifts on the graves of their loved ones. One grave had two cans of beer and a bottle of whiskey.
We then strolled Radical Row, armed with literature on FHC, including “The Day Will Come”, a book honoring working class heroes, by Mark Rogovin. The first working class hero we met was Eddie Balchowsky.
Eddie was a concert pianist who fought the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Although he lost his right arm, he continued to have a distinguished career as a pianist. The students didn’t know about the Spanish Civil War, nor did they recognize the band Eddie was playing with, The Mamas and The Papas. They were also distracted by a fawn trotting among the gravestones. FHC is not only rich in history, it has flora and fauna and fawns.
We continued down Radical Row and lingered at the Haymarket Martyrs Monument to talk about the fight for the eight hour work day. The students were shocked that the martyrs were labeled terrorists. This showed them that FHC would accept anyone for burial.
Students admired the monument and were also in awe of Lucy Parsons’ tiny gravestone, which was the driving force behind the monument’s creation. She was the African-American widow of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons and continued her work.
We discussed other prominent African Americans buried at Forest Home, such as Professor Joseph Corbin, who founded the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. On a sadder note, we discussed a 13-year-old girl named Schanna Gayden, who was killed by a stray bullet in 2007. Schanna’s mother couldn’t afford a funeral, so FHC paid for it all. The cemetery also created a shrine dedicated to Schanna with the inscription “In memory of all loved ones who have been lost due to violent crimes”.
The students wanted to see Schanna’s shrine but I couldn’t find it. We have located the grave of a little girl named May, whom Maywood was named. We also visited the grave of Ferdinand Haase, the founder of Forest Park and described how the site was originally a Native American village and cemetery until the Potawatomi were forcibly moved to a reservation.
We found Edward Roos’ tombstone, and I had a hard time explaining what a Hope Chest is. We also saw the monument in honor of Frank Troost. At the very least, the students have learned why we have streets named Ferdinand, Hannah and Troost. They also learned that the city was originally called Harlem and combined the names of two neighboring suburbs, River Forest and Oak Park, to become Forest Park.
Our last stop was the Druid Monument. Some students knew the figure of Merlin from stories about King Arthur. They had no idea that the Druids were the origin of Halloween and that their idea of a “thing” involved human sacrifice.
The tour lasted two hours and we walked over four miles. No one complained. Teachers and students felt liberated after a year of confinement. We offered to do more tours in the fall. There are so many more landmarks to see.
The students then sent me a thoughtful card. One of them thanked me for telling him everything about Forest Park and the people who changed the world.