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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Every family's nightmare: Burr Oak Cemetery graves allegedly stripped for profit

Right: Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (second from right) and his officers investigate dozens of graves that were dug up and the bodies dumped in a massive pile at Burr Oak Cemetery, 4400 W. 127th St. in Alsip.

Gross neglect that allowed grave desecrations is astounding
July 8, 2009
BY Mary Mitchell, Columnist

At one time, Burr Oak Cemetery was the only place black Chicagoans were sure they could bury their dead. But on Wednesday, the historic African-American cemetery became the site of a horror story.

As many as 100 human bodies — someone’s grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, son, daughter, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew cousin or friend — were removed from their graves and the plots resold.

“All of us who were working on this for the last week were pretty distraught,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told me. “You start with the premise of your own loved ones and how they are cared for after they are buried, but there is also a true significance to this particular cemetery,” he said.

“I’ve been by Emmett Till’s grave several times. This is where his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, is also buried, and there is a long list of notable people buried here. This isn’t an ordinary cemetery,” he said.

Other well-known people buried in Burr Oak include jazz legend Dinah Washington; bluesmen Willie Dixon and Otis Spann; Harlem Globetrotter Inman Jackson; and several Negro League baseball players.

Officers raided the cemetery, at 4400 W. 127th St, in Alsip, Wednesday morning. Five people were taken into custody.

Dart’s office was notified by the cemetery’s owners of “impropriety” about three weeks ago.
“We thought it would be straightforward financial theft. We found out that graves were being opened and remains were disinterred and removed,” he said.

Dart believes the scheme has been going on for about four years. Earlier Wednesday Dart met with several South Side funeral directors and ministers to advise them of the scandal.

“It really makes me feel bad, especially because we deal with Burr Oaks all the time,” said Spencer Leak Sr., the long-time president of Leak and Sons Funeral Home on the South Side, which had a representative at the meeting.

The cemetery’s downfall has a special significance to Leak. In 1964, Leak joined 10,000 people led by his father, A.R. Leak, and the Rev. Clay Evans to protest the racially segregated Oak Woods Cemetery.

It is appalling that 45 years later, employees at the city’s first African-American cemetery are being accused of stripping graves for profit.

“For many years, this was the only cemetery where African Americans could be buried,” Leak said. “This cemetery was owned by John Johnson and Ebony Magazine when Johnson owned Unity Insurance Company,” Leak said.

“There are a lot of prominent African Americans buried there. Because our funeral home has serviced so many families throughout the years, we know we have to be responsive to families,” he said.

“I want to hear specifics so we can know how to deal with our families. Do we have to take them out to the cemetery and take them to the grave where they thought they buried their loved one,” Leak said.

“Then, for the families who have buried people in the last four years, we need to know if they were put in one of the resold plots.”

So far details of the extent of the desecration are sketchy. But Dart believes the employees who conspired to pull off the scheme targeted older graves and unmarked graves that had not been visited for a long period of time.

The thieves dumped the bodies in a mass site in the rear of the cemetery — caskets and all.
Dart said he’s seen evidence that the desecration of graves may be widespread.

“There were plenty of concrete vaults that were shattered,” he said. “More than we could count.”

...“It was well thought out,” Dart said. The employees apparently freelanced selling grave plots and dealt with cash. “One person had inordinate control of records, and a lot of those records have since been destroyed.

“We don’t know the full extent of this yet,” he said. But he is confident that Emmett Till’s grave is intact. “I’ve talked to employees who were not involved in this and they assured us that the grave looks the same way it has always looked,” Dart said...


Anonymous said...

I walk historic grayeyards for the history and to look at the different types of markers there are. This is disgusting behavior, but do have to say I can bet he isn't the only one that has done this. Especially in this economy, people will do anything for the almighty buck. We live in a sick society and it shows everyday. I do hope some serious jail time comes out of this, and this is another good reason to be cremated. I do believe that the Devil is going to have plenty of company in the future.

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