Once a week, month after month, for a decade, the five volunteers would go to work.
Sifting through boxes at a South Side funeral home, surrounded by caskets in a side room, they sorted and organized the paper burial records of thousands and thousands of Black Chicagoans, determined to preserve those important pieces of history.
“It was spooky,” Lettie Sabbs, now 80, said of working near the caskets. “Some of them may have had someone in them; you didn’t know.”
They started in 2009. Many of those paper documents at the Charles Jackson Funeral Home were in disarray, thrown haphazardly into cardboard boxes. When the funeral home at 7350 S. Cottage Grove Ave. closed in 2012, the records eventually were moved to the Bronzeville Historical Society.
The volunteers from the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Chicago continued to go through the boxes, week after week, at the historical society, where they would type the names and other information into computer spreadsheets.
Later, they added to their workload, getting access to burial records from another defunct South Side mortuary, Carter Funeral Chapels, 2100 E. 75th St., which also closed in 2012.
By the time they were done, in 2019, one volunteer estimated they’d gone through at least 400 boxes — more than 140,000 funeral records in all.
But it was, Sabbs said, a labor of love to save the histories of tens of thousands of people.
Now, their work will be preserved for generations and accessible to the public, thanks to a new, permanent home at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Chicago Public Library, 9525 S. Halsted St.
That news was celebrated Tuesday at the historical society, 4455 S. King Dr. The volunteers said they were driven to continue so that future Black Chicagoans would one day be able to find out where they came from.
“Death records are one of the most important records in terms of tracing people back,” said Sabbs’ twin sister, Nettie Nesbary, who pitched in along with Laura Bibbs, Sylvia Rogers and Doris Morton.
Most importantly, they contain the names of the deceased’s parents, allowing for further research. “If you don’t know that, you can go no further,” Nesbary said.
The records join the Midwest’s largest biggest trove of materials on African American history, said Sherry Williams, founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, which helped support the volunteers’ efforts and connected them with the library.
Williams had been worried the records might otherwise end up behind a paywall.
“We wanted it to be somewhere where the public could access it for free,” she said.
The database allows many Black Chicagoans to find out more about their roots, she said, and discover potentially forgotten details — such as whether the deceased belonged to a fraternity or sorority, or what role they played in church or the community.
“This is the only way that many of us can get details on early arrivals in the city” Williams said.
She also expects researchers can use the records to better understand the Great Migration, when Black Southerners moved north en masse to escape Jim Crow segregation. The contributions that wave of new arrivals made to Chicago are endless — jazz, blues, food, literature and historical figures — all the way up to a first lady in the White House.
It’s a history that’s too often erased, Williams said. When Williams first found out about the group’s work in 2012, it was after the Jackson funeral home had closed and the records had been sealed.
Williams had to persuade the state comptroller’s office — responsible for the records because of the confidential information they contained — to entrust the records to the group so they could move the boxes out of storage. The boxes went to the historical society, which allowed the group to carry on its work.
The Carter home records were an even bigger challenge — they were in a building that had been boarded up and condemned. Representatives from the comptroller’s office had pry off the boards to get the records out.
“Everyone deserves to have this knowledge of who they are and where they come from,” Comptroller Susana Mendoza said at Tuesday’s event.
Williams said the records already are available at the library. The Englewood native hopes other funeral homes in the area follow suit by making records accessible, promising that she could find another team of volunteers to digitize the records on site.
Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.