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'Remember Me As One Who Tried To Be Fair'

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This week is the 20th anniversary of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s death. On November 25, 1987, just months after he’d won re-election, Washington died of a heart attack. In 1983, Washington had turned Chicago politics on its ear, beating out Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley to become the city’s first black mayor. Today we begin a series on Washington’s legacy, Harold: Then and Now. Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun begins with a visit to the cemetery where the late mayor is buried. On the day of Washington’s funeral, the crowd started at Christ Universal Temple. It lined the entire procession route, 70 blocks through the cold, all the way to Oak Woods Cemetery.

Now, for those who haven’t been there, Oak Woods is big. Look on a map—it covers 36 full city blocks. The main office sits just off the cemetery driveway, next to the small parking lot, through a double wooden door. And there you’ll find the cemetery staff, including, most days, Ida Jackson, who manages sales.

JACKSON: I started here in 1989. Wow. That’s a long time isn’t it?

Ida Jackson is a soft-spoken woman—who knows an impressive amount about the history of Oak Woods.

JACKSON: The oldest burial is 1864.

I met up with her recently, to talk about Mayor Washington’s grave—about who comes to visit, what they leave, what all of that says about Washington’s legacy. Jackson says, flat out, Washington’s grave is the most visited in the entire cemetery. To understand what that means, consider how many gravesites are here.

CALHOUN: You said 197,000...
JACKSON: 197,000 buriels...Yes

And consider who else is resting in Oak Woods.

JACKSON: We have Jesse Owens here, Ida B. Wells—the names go on and on and on and on.

And on...

JACKSON: The Staple Singer’s are here. Recently joined by John Johnson, Johnson Publication. Tommy Dorsey is here too. Are you familiar with Tommy Dorsey?

JACKSON: Precious Lord Take My Hand
CALHOUN: From Salem Baptist
JACKSON: That’s correct.

Also, an Al Capone hitman, a former Illinois governor, and the late Chicago Mayor Bill Thompson. Washington—the most visited.

Jackson says Oak Woods doesn’t keep track of things like phone calls or people asking how to find the grave. So knowing precisely how many people visit Washington is tricky.

JACKSON: How many? How frequently? I cannot tell you.
CALHOUN: It’s hard to say exactly. But, can you give me a sense?
JACKSON: Probably every day.

To get a better picture of what it’s like at Washington’s gravesite day in day out, Jackson turned me over to one of the groundskeepers. There are two people left on the groundskeeping staff that were actually on duty for Washington’s funeral, and he’s one of them.

ambi: sound of pickup

I joined him in his white pickup truck near the cemetery garages back behind the office

CALHOUN: John Oaks right?
OAKS: That’s right, no relation to the cemetery.
CALHOUN: Bet you get asked that a lot though, huh?
OAKS: Occasionally.

John Oaks agrees to take a couple minutes to drive out to Washington’s grave. Oaks is originally from Alabama. He’s the kind of guy who can sweet talk a old pickup truck into reverse.

OAKS: Come on, Baby.

No really.

OAKS: Ah, there we go.

Oaks slides out from behind the wheel, and says he first came to Chicago in the early 1970s.

OAKS: Moved to Chicago in ’71. Had a job working on a riverboat.
CALHOUN: You worked on a riverboat?
OAKS: Yeah. Mmm-hmm.

If you ever see John Oaks you’ll know why that’s funny.

CALHOUN: The gray hair and the mustache, it gives you a Mark Twain look.
OAKS: Well, I been called worse. I’ll tell you that. Thank you.

As Oaks stands at Washington’s grave he seems unaffected by how striking it is. The gravesite is essentially a sidewalk, laid out in a giant cross. It’s on a gentle hill near the center of the cemetery. At the top of the cross a grey mausoleum, with Washington’s name, government seals, and the quote “remember me as one who tried to be fair.”

OAKS: I must have done thousands of services out here since I been here.

Oaks says he cares about his work—but says after 35 years there aren’t a lot of services that stand out.

OAKS: Infants or small children—are the only ones that really bother me.

But as Oaks talks about the site, you can see the memory come back.

OAKS: Well, the day, it wasn’t a very nice day as I recall. It was overcast, kind of like it is now. It was colder.

And just like that, Oaks remembers Washington’s funeral.

OAKS: There was just lillies. Pots and pots and pots of lillies.

He remembers it down to the small details.

OAKS: We just kind of stood off to the side here. Kind of like a military funeral I guess. All stood at attention trying to look good.

Oaks recalls the crowds in and around the cemetery. The media. The family and politicians standing around the grave.

OAKS: Some of the aldermen didn’t like standing behind them ropes, but that wasn’t my problem.

Oaks says working out on the grounds, he sees people at Washington’s grave just about every day. Sometimes people leave notes and stick them in the iron grates of the mausoleum. Oaks says people who come to the cemetery for other funerals often seek out Washington.

OAKS: A lot of times, I don’t care what kind of funeral it is. Is Mayor Washington buried out here? Yeah, where’s his grave. And God...what’s it been here, 20 years?

Oaks says he’s amazed at how many people still ask.

OAKS: Constantly.

People of all ages and backgrounds. John Oaks says people who go to visit Mayor Washington’s grave should know a few things. Like about the mausoleum.

OAKS: The mayor’s not actually in there.

The mausoleum came a few years after Washington died.

OAKS: He’s actually right down here.

In the circle at the center of grave. By the headstone that reads “He Loved Chicago.”

As we turn to head back to the office, Oaks says there’s one other thing people should look at when they visit. It’s not actually on Washington’s gravesite, but all around it. Oaks says before the mayor was buried there, the area was largely empty. People just didn’t really want to be there. But Oaks says that since Washington’s death, that’s changed. These days the area is crowded with graves—crowded with people who wanted to be close to him.

I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio.

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