Tuesday, October 4, 2022
CHICAGO—Illinois Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza joined members of the Bronzeville Historical Society (BHS) Tuesday to mark the transfer of historic burial records to the Chicago Public Library’s Vivian G. Harsh Collection. The records help preserve Illinois Black history.
The Illinois Office of Comptroller (IOC) regulates Illinois’ cemeteries’ pre-need funeral and cemetery contracts and care funds. IOC and BHS collaborated to obtain burial records from shuttered Black-owned funeral homes before the historical records were lost forever.
“DNA testing has added a new dimension to test family lore of where we came from,” said Comptroller Mendoza. “But for African Americans interested in understanding the history of their families, the effort is more complicated. The legacy of slavery, prejudice and institutional racism means many records are incomplete or aren’t easily available.”
Comptroller Mendoza worked with Sherry Williams, BHS President, and her staff to save funeral records in Illinois dating back to the 1920s.
Founded in 1999, BHS preserves the history of Black culture in Chicago. Twin sisters Nettie Nesbary and Lettie Sabbs lead a team of 10 individuals who process documents and manage a database of more than 140,000 burial records the Comptroller’s office helped obtain.
This project has preserved death records dating back to the 1880s. These records will now be permanently preserved in the Harsh Collection, which is the largest African American history and literature collection in the Midwest.
“It warms my heart to have so many enthusiastic people,” said Williams. “Do know that we are here to serve anyone’s needs when it comes to genealogical research, especially African American genealogical research. We have the most important researchers in the city of Chicago here.”
Many relatives of living Illinoisans braved the trip North during the Great Migration to escape Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. They have names and stories shared in these records. This effort is about honoring and better understanding that history – which too often is unfortunately erased or hidden.
In some cases, the Comptroller’s office had to obtain court orders to pry wooden boards off of doors of shuttered historic funeral homes to retrieve in banker’s boxes pieces of history that would otherwise be forever lost before the buildings were razed. BHS has diligently organized those files into collections so that they will be saved for the ages.
Comptroller Mendoza awarded certificates to Bronzeville Historical Society members:
They were recognized for the countless hours spent preserving and cataloging the over 140,000 individual burial records.
Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said sometimes African American history and culture gets washed away. “We have to work very hard to make sure that our contributions, our people, our legacies are always top of mind,” Ald. Dowell said. She thanked the historic preservationists for saving the legacy of Black Illinoisans for the city of Chicago and the entire state.
It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. Census began collecting the names of African American people for its records, one of the hurdles for many Illinoisans in tracking their genealogy.
“As a former educator, I understand the importance of our story and passing our history down from generation to generation,” said State. Rep. Lamont Robinson (D-Chicago). “We must acknowledge, understand and preserve our history.”
“There was a time in this country where records of Black Americans were not kept. Just a few generations ago, our ancestors did not have birth records,” said State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago). “Those ancestors were resilient. They made lives for themselves and gave life and eventually led us here today.”
The elected officials praised Williams for leading her staff in their efforts to keep this history and these stories alive so that current and future Illinoisans will better know their roots. Sara Wooley, an attorney in the Comptroller’s Springfield office, spearheaded the Comptroller’s efforts, along with Percy Lucina and George Pope in the Comptroller’s cemetery care and burial trust division.
“The members of the Bronzeville Historical Society have taken lost puzzle pieces and put the puzzle back together so that scholars and the public can take an uplifting journey through the footsteps of those who came before them. Members of the Bronzeville Historical Society have truly made a difference in creating a database where you can now search your surname and sift through history,” said Comptroller Mendoza.