Sunday, August 2, 2009

CHICAGO | 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.

Jeff and Ida Lucas were buried in Burr Oak Cemetery, alongside thousands of black Americans who made up the Great Migration - a movement north during the first half of the 20th century.

Burr Oak, once one of the only burial places for blacks, 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 Mr. Lucas see desecration of the cemetery as evidence their people’s history is slipping away and becoming 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 Mr. 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 searched 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,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Chicago-based civil rights leader. “We’ve never known something of this magnitude before.”

Mr. 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 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 their 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 civil rights figure Emmett Till, singer Dinah Washington, blues musician Willie Dixon, Negro League pitcher John Donaldson and NFL player J. Mayo Williams. In 1975, Burr Oak was the setting for one of the final scenes in the movie “Cooley High.”

Most Chicago-area blacks had someone buried there. The Rev. Marshall Elijah Hatch remembers his father, a pastor, officiating at funerals time and time again.

“The standard threat of my father to keep us on the straight and narrow was: ‘There’s plenty of room in Burr Oak,’ ” Mr. Hatch said.

But Mr. Hatch noticed cracks in the sidewalks and a lack of trees in the past month. To him, the cemetery has begun to resemble a big, empty lot.

Former postal worker Louella Johnson didn’t want to bury her mother in the family’s prepaid plot when she died two years ago.

“I just didn’t say anything, but I had a gut feeling,” Miss Johnson said. “You know how you get a feeling and you can’t shake it?”

Her grandfather moved from Greenwood, Miss., to Chicago in the 1930s to take a job and slowly raised the money to send for his children. He was buried at Burr Oak and, over the years, about 30 of his relatives joined him there. Now Ms. Johnson has to decide whether to continue the tradition.

“I got a sense of my family there once,” she said, but now “the ground is not sacred.”

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