By Erick Johnson
Last summer, a group of Black women took a tour of Oak Woods Cemetery to view the final resting places of some of Chicago’s most famous and influential Black citizens. They saw the family plot of the Staple Singers, where a fresh grave had been filled by Yvonne Staples after her death on April 10, 2018.
Strolling by Oak Woods’ man-made ponds, lakes and its shaded walking trails, the women visited the graves of Olympian Jesse Owens, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the elaborate crypt of Johnson Publishing Company founder John H. Johnson.
They took pictures of the crypt of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. Across the Lake of Reverence, where Washington has rested for 31 years is the grave of Eugene Sawyer, the city’s second Black mayor, who succeeded Washington during a bitter racial period in Chicago’s history.
For 10 years, Sawyer has been buried in an unmarked grave, where he lies as a forgotten political figure who tried to unify the city after he was appointed mayor in the wee hours of the morning in December 1987. He served as Chicago’s interim mayor for 16 months from 1987 to 1989.
In life, Sawyer became the longest-serving Black alderman in his lifetime, before his short term as mayor ended with a crushing defeat by Richard M. Daley in the Democratic primary in 1989.
Next week will be the 11th anniversary of Sawyer’s death, which occurred on January 19, 2008.
In death, Sawyer remains an unknown public figure in a prominent cemetery where many late Black achievers and two Chicago mayors are honored with elaborate tombstones, crypts and headstones. William “Big Bill” Thompson, 33rd mayor of the city, died in 1944. Harold Washington, the city’s 41st mayor, was buried at Oak Woods in 1987. The only thing that rests on Sawyer’s grave is a patch of grass with a growing number of fresh graves with tombstones around it.
It’s a sad ending to man who rose to the pinnacle of Chicago politics after starting his career in a low-level job with the city’s Water Department. After a long political career serving Chicago as an alderman and mayor, Sawyer lies in a grave that’s fit for a pauper.
He was born in 1934 in Greensboro, Alabama, historically a small Black town with a population of just over 2,000 people. He was the son of a mortician and attended segregated schools in Alabama. In 1952, Sawyer graduated from Hale County Vocational School as salutatorian, class president and quarterback of the high school football team. The oldest of six children, Sawyer attended Alabama State University in Montgomery and spent his summer breaks in Chicago, where he lived with his aunt on the South Side. In 1956, Sawyer earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry.
After graduating from college, Sawyer taught high school math and chemistry for one year in Prentiss, Mississippi. In 1957, he moved to Chicago permanently to pursue a career in laboratory science. In 1959, he was hired as an industrial waste coordinator for the city’s sewer department. That same year, Sawyer joined the Democratic Ward Organization of the 6th Ward, where he worked his way up through the organization’s ranks. Through the years, Sawyer served as president of the 6th Ward Young Democrats and financial secretary for the entire ward organization.
In 1971, Sawyer was elected alderman of the 6th Ward, replacing incumbent A.A. “Sammy” Rayner, Jr., who retired after serving one four-year term.
Throughout his life, Sawyer was known as a calm, soft-spoken public figure. When Washington died abruptly in 1987, Sawyer became embroiled in a bitter battle with then-4thWard Alderman Timothy Evans to replace Washington. Blacks in Chicago, at the time, felt that the city’s highest position should go to a Black person. With then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley as an opponent, progressive Blacks were concerned that the city would return to the days of Chicago’s old political machine that was fueled by Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.
In the Black community, the battle over who would represent the city’s people of color was brewing between Sawyer and Evans. Evans, who was Washington’s protégé, chairman of the Chicago Finance Committee and floor leader of the City Council, proclaimed himself Washington’s rightful heir.
Having served four terms in the 6th Ward, Sawyer had built a reputation as the longest-serving Black alderman in the city’s history. Sawyer also had a reputation of having ties to Mayor Richard J. Daley’s old political machine.
The feud between the two heated up on December 2, 1987 after the City Council voted 29-19 to elect Sawyer as interim mayor over Evans at 4 a.m. in City Hall. Most of the votes came from white aldermen who often opposed Washington during his terms in office.
On December 1, 1987—the night before—about 5,000 of Evans’ supporters stormed City Hall to attend the meeting, which didn’t start until four hours later, according to news reports. Many stood outside, chanting, “We want Evans” and “No more deals.”
Then-Alderman Bobby Rush (2nd Ward) was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, “When you see these individuals (white aldermen) rallying behind a Black man, then you know a deal has been cut that cuts the people of the city of Chicago out.”
After Sawyer was elected interim mayor, many Blacks accused him of being a “sell-out” to the white political establishment. His election threw grease on the fire during the special mayoral election in 1989, where there was concern that two Blacks in the race would lead to the election of Richard M. Daley. Black leaders had called for a summit to support Evans.
Many Black aldermen favored Evans. Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. decided to endorse Sawyer. Fearing a split Black vote, Evans decided to run as an independent of his newly-created Harold Washington Party. Jackson later called on Blacks to support Evans during the general election in April 1989, should Sawyer lose to Daley in the Democratic primary.
Daley defeated Sawyer, capturing at least 57 percent of the vote to Sawyer’s 42 percent. Exit polls showed that Daley won 86 percent of the white vote and Sawyer 12 percent. Many of the whites who had voted for Washington voted for Daley, despite their dislike of the previous Daley administration. Turnout was low in Chicago’s predominantly Black wards, where Sawyer won 91 percent of the Black vote. Sawyer’s ties to white aldermen were blamed for the low turnout among Black voters.
Daley went on to defeat Evans and Republican challenger Edward R. Vrdolyak in the April 4 general election.
After his defeat, Sawyer retreated from public life. His financial debts grew after several business deals, and in 2006, Sawyer filed bankruptcy after a $1.1 million lawsuit from a failed business venture.
After suffering several strokes, Sawyer died at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital on January 19, 2008. He was 73. His death came one day after Cook County Board President John Stroger died at 79.
Despite his political ties, Sawyer is remembered as a consummate politician, who brought peace to City Hall after Washington restored it. As interim mayor, Sawyer is credited with getting approved Washington’s long-stalled human rights ordinance, which protects gays from discrimination. Sawyer is also praised for getting lights installed at Wrigley Field in 1988, paving the way for night games to be played at the baseball stadium on the North Side.
Sawyer’s legacy may not shine as bright as Washington’s, but he remains an important figure in Chicago politics.
In addition to a community center, in 2016, the city renamed the South Water Purification Plant after Sawyer to the Eugene Sawyer Purification Plant. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Roderick Sawyer attended the festivities. In a story in dnainfo.com—a defunct online publication—Alderman Roderick Sawyer said he was unsure why it had taken the city so long to name anything after his father.
“I wish I could do a fraction of the things he had done during his tenure,” Sawyer was quoted as saying at the event. Sawyer is wrapping up his second term in the same ward that his father served for 16 years.
So why after 10 years, has Mayor Sawyer been buried in an unmarked grave at Oak Woods Cemetery?
The Crusader contacted Alderman Sawyer through his spokesperson, Joanna Klonsky, who did not respond to an email by press time Wednesday. The Crusader also left a message on Klonsky’s voicemail, but got no answer. An email sent to the 6th Ward office also was unanswered.
An employee at Oak Woods Cemetery said the office reached out to Alderman Sawyer several times about getting a marker for his father’s grave, but never got a response.
(The Crusader first learned about this story in 2016 while researching another story involving Oak Woods. The Crusader held off writing this story just in case there were any possible extenuating circumstances regarding Sawyer’s headstone.)
Sawyer’s grave is located on the south end of Oak Woods’ Lake of Reverence. His unmarked grave sits to the left of the grave of Dr. Yele Akande, who died on October 24, 2009. Akande’s grave has a large, upright Black marble tombstone with a large marble globe on top.
As part of their service to visitors and prospective clients, Oak Woods provides a list of prominent Black officials who are buried at the cemetery. Without a headstone or marker, directing visitors to Eugene Sawyer’s grave has become a sensitive conversation.
“That’s a shame,” the worker said. “All of (Eugene) Sawyer’s hard work for nothing.”