Both Lincoln and Oak Woods cemeteries wanted the honor of burying Mayor Harold Washington when he died 30 years ago. His death sparked a battle before Oak Woods made an unprecedented offer to become the new resting place for the Black elite. It won and got a whole lot more.
By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The long farewell was wrapping up at Christ Universal Temple on the South Side. As the choir led the mourners in singing “We Shall Overcome,” Chicago’s Who’s Who began leaving the megachurch where the three-and-a-half-hour funeral for Chicago’s first Black Mayor, Harold Washington, was held.
Sen. Edward Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the Who’s Who of America and Chicago who got into their cars and began the nine-and-a-half mile journey to Oak Woods Cemetery, where the grandest homegoing service in Chicago history ended with a burial and a 21-gun salute on a chilly afternoon on Monday, Nov. 30, 1987.
Thirty years later, many people of all races in Chicago still remember that moment and the tough days that preceded it. When doctors pronounced Washington dead of a heart attack at 1:36 p.m. on Nov. 25, 1987, it triggered an outpouring of grief and sadness throughout the city—one day before Thanksgiving. Weeks earlier, Washington had been re-elected to a second term by Chicago’s powerful Black electorate. The expansion of Midway airport, hiring young Blacks to bring City Hall into the computer age and boosting economic development in poor neighborhoods became part of Washington’s legacy.
At just 5’10” when he died, Washington weighed 284 pounds after years of occasional smoking and unhealthy eating habits. Months earlier, Washington had served as Grand Marshal in the Bud Billiken parade. No one knew that in a few months, he would be dead.
Following his death, Marshall Field’s flagship State Street store displayed a framed photo of Washington flanked with purple bunting at one of its entrances. As the season got underway, it was a stark contrast to Fields’ holiday window displays that hundreds of shoppers viewed. On Black Friday underneath gray and gloomy skies, there were many tears and long faces as singer Stephanie Mills sang a soulful tribute during a memorial service at Daley Plaza.
For the next two days, nearly 100,000 stood in line for hours waiting to view his body under the rotunda at City Hall. Officials estimated that 4,000 people per hour paid their final respects as honor guards stood near Washington’s body as it lay in repose dressed in a navy blue pinstripe suit. On Nov. 29 when the viewing finally ended late into the night, funeral directors from A.A. Rayner & Sons took Harold to the funeral home to prepare for his homegoing the next day at Christ Universal Temple.
Following a funeral filled with pomp and politics, thousands of mourners lined the route of the funeral procession leading to Oak Woods Cemetery at 67th & Cottage Grove. When Washington was lowered into the cold earth that day, five days of official mourning ended, but the tears flowed for much longer.
After Washington was buried, what also ended was an intense battle between Oak Woods and Lincoln—both of which had lobbied heavily to become his final resting place.
Washington was famous and widely respected as Chicago’s first Black mayor. The site selected as his burial place had the potential to bring prestige, appeal and a bigger profile to any cemetery. Sources told the Chicago Crusader that Oak Woods and Lincoln Cemetery were the top two choices for Washington’s relatives, but only one could have him.
According to sources, Washington was to be buried at Lincoln Cemetery where his father, Roy Washington, is buried, as is Chicago aviator Bessie Coleman and the founders of the Chicago Crusader, the Chicago Defender and the defunct Chicago Bee: Balm L. Leavell Jr., Robert S. Abbott and Anthony Overton, respectively. America’s first Black Pulitzer Prize winner for literature, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the wife of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, Lil Hardin Armstrong, are also at Lincoln. Singer Natalie Cole’s ex-husband, Marvin Yancy, and paternal grandmother, Perlina Coles, are also there.
For Blacks, Lincoln and Burr Oak Cemeteries were the main two burial grounds during segregation, but it was Lincoln that established itself as the place for the Black elite. It sought to continue that legacy with Washington’s body.
Sources told the Crusader that Oak Woods tipped the scale when it offered the Washington family a $300,000 resting place for free near one of its lush lakes. It was an offer that was too good to pass up. After Washington’s burial, Oak Woods—a once sought-after burial place that had lost its luster due to changing times—became the choice for Chicago’s famous Blacks who have since been buried there, including Washington’s successor, Mayor Eugene Sawyer, the city’s second Black mayor. With just one big-name burial, Oak Woods set the stage to be the city’s new final resting place for the Black elite making Washington a leader in death as he was in life.
For decades, Oak Woods Cemetery has been among Chicago’s prominent burial grounds with its elaborate crypts, ponds and park-like setting. The 183-acre cemetery is filled with the graves of governors, former Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson and some of Chicago’s prominent white residents, including William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago.
Throughout its history, the cemetery was segregated. During the Jim Crow era, Blacks who knew prominent whites used their connections to secure plots that cemetery officials normally declined to sell directly to them as people of color. In the early 1960s, the Rev. A.R. Leak, found- er of the venerable namesake funeral home, led a march to desegregate the cemetery after it refused to cremate the body of a Black woman.
In the 60s when Woodlawn and Greater Grand Crossing became predominantly Black, Oak Woods began to see a dramatic drop in white burials. After segregation in the cemetery was outlawed, Blacks began burying their dead there. In 1980, Olympian Jesse Owens was buried at Oak Woods as well as Simeon High School star basketball player Benji Wilson, who was shot dead in 1984. Even with its higher-priced cemetery vaults, Oak Woods still struggled to boost its profile among Blacks and attract a clientele that could afford to bury their loved ones there, and fewer affluent whites were burying their dead in the cemetery because Oak Woods was now in a predominantly Black neighborhood where few whites wanted to visit the graves of their loved ones.
Thirty years ago when Washington died, he was buried in a grave six-feet deep and four-feet wide. When the family didn’t give permission to relocate his body to an above-ground crypt, Oak Woods officials built the $300,000 gray granite crypt on top of Washington’s grave. The actual crypt remains empty, but to Oak Woods officials, it’s a clever way of boosting interest among visitors seeking a glimpse at the final resting place of Washington even though he is six feet beneath the structure.
Today, Oak Woods is flourishing. The cemetery recently built a new mausoleum in the southwest corner of the facility. Johnson Publishing Company founder John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice, are buried in a $1 million granite crypt. Also buried at Oak Woods are: “Queen of Gospel” Albertina Walker; Thomas Dor- sey, the father of gospel music; activist Willie T. Barrow; and Blues legend Otis Clay. Illinois’ first Black State’s Attorney, Roland Burris, has purchased a crypt across from Olympian Jesse Owens. Last year, William “Bill” Garth, the publisher of the Chicago Citizen was buried several yards across from Washington’s crypt.