Harold Lucas was raised with the stories about his grandparents, who rode segregated railroad cars from Missouri to Chicago in the 1930s and worked tirelessly to raise their family into the middle class.
Burr Oak, once one of the only burial places for blacks in the Chicago area, holds a sacred spot in African-American history–making all the worse allegations that workers there dug up bodies and dumped them to resell the burial plots.
People like Lucas see desecration of the cemetery as evidence their people’s history is slipping away and forgotten. He and others say they don’t know how to tell young blacks to be proud of their heritage when it has been treated so carelessly.
“We need these physical reminders,” said Lucas, 66. “This is about emancipation. About breaking the cycle of poverty.”
State records don’t show when the cemetery was founded, but some headstones date to the late 1800s. Historians say that until the mid-1900s it was one of just two cemeteries in the Chicago area that were open to blacks.
Last month, Burr Oak was temporarily closed as investigators search for evidence that bodies were double-stacked in graves or tossed in a grassy field. Hundreds of families converged on the cemetery, hoping to confirm that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents remain in their graves.
Four former workers, all black, have been arrested on felony counts of dismembering and tampering with bodies.
“There’s a real sense of betrayal,” Chicago-based civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. “We’ve never known something of this magnitude before.”
Lucas, president and CEO of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, rarely visited Burr Oak, but the thought of it was important to him.
His grandparents settled in a roughly 5-square-mile strip on Chicago’s South Side that was home to many migrated blacks. They worked as servants in white families’ homes, saved money and moved to a wealthier neighborhood, where they contributed to their church and gave their children a good education.
Even after cemeteries opened to all races, black Chicagoans continued to join their relatives at Burr Oak. It became the final resting place for lynching victim Emmett Till, singer Dinah Washington, blues musician Willie Dixon, Negro League pitcher John Donaldson and National Football League player J. Mayo Williams. In 1975, Burr Oak was the setting for one of the final scenes in the movie “Cooley High.”
[Editor’s Note: An earlier story about the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal can be read here.]