Oakland Cemetery Yellow Fever marker

SHREVEPORT, La -- The word history, for some, may bring to mind long lectures and the memorization of dates. But Louisiana State University-Shreveport history professor Cheryl White has spent her life making history classes interesting and fun for students. She is also a community advocate, making our community better by showcasing its rich history and researching how we can learn from it.

“My days are full but fun,” said White.

A historian by trade, White’s love of studying what has been started early in life.

“There’s something about the past for me, as a child even, that expanded the experience of being alive,” said White.

And that experience has kept her reaching for more. White is also an author, a speaker, the academics initiative coordinator for the Spring Street Museum, and a board member for the historic Oaklawn Cemetery. She has brought her expertise, knowledge, and thirst for information from our town, to places as far away as the Vatican.

“I’m especially proud of being permitted to be in the Vatican’s secret archives on three different occasions,” said White. “It is a privilege that is afforded to a few scholars, and I feel incredibly honored to have done that.”

But her home and the majority of her work are here.

“Shreveport has a great story,” she explained.

And that story is still being written. Historically speaking, one of the biggest factors affecting Shreveport’s history today is the coronavirus. Ask around and people will say they have never seen anything like COVID-19 in their lifetime. But that’s where history comes in. If you look back to the late 1800’s in Shreveport, there was Yellow Fever.

“In the fall of 1873 when Yellow Fever hit, people were dying so rapidly that the city sextons in Oakland Cemetery couldn’t keep up with the burials,” said White. “So, the city council decided to open up a single mass grave.”

There are more than 800 people buried in the Yellow Fever mound in Shreveport’s Oakland Cemetery -- without coffins and wearing the clothes they had on when they died. There is no memorial, and no names on grave markers.

“One of the things I want to accomplish is a lasting memorial to the 800 people plus who are buried in that mound,” said White.

So why does this history matter to us today? One of the best predictors of human behavior is to look at past behavior. And historians like White look for parallels.

“There are patterns in human behavior and responses to situations,” she said.

For that reason, LSUS has recently received a grant for White and the staff to begin a study comparing the 2020 coronavirus and the Yellow Fever epidemic.

“We might be separated by 600, 700 years of history, but human beings respond the same way,” said White. “To compare Shreveport today during the coronavirus pandemic and looking at the yellow fever epidemic, there are going to be many parallels.”

But also, a few unique human responses.

“You know, I made a joke about the fact that people were hoarding toilet paper. But it’s really not a joke,” White said. “That is an extreme social reaction that a hundred years from now someone like me is going to be writing about.”

Although a tragic time, the history books show a happy ending to the 1870’s.

“In Yellow Fever, Shreveport became a story of remarkable and unexpected survival,” White explained. “So, it’s going to be interesting to see how Shreveport deals with coming out of what we’re in now.”

White says the grant study will take years, because the coronavirus part of our history is just now taking place. The historians will be comparing community reaction of the two diseases, and possibly helping future generations to understand the context of what they are living through from a historical perspective.

Cheryl White has written several books on local history. Her first book, written with Gary Joiner, is called “Historic Haunts of Shreveport,” which is the basis for haunted tours she leads in Shreveport to raise money for local historic preservation.

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