By Chinta Strausberg
Coming from a family of civil rights activists in business for 80-years, Spencer Leak, Sr., president of the Leak & Sons Funeral Homes is being honored Saturday by the ETA Creative Arts Foundation, Inc. along with ironic businessman Ed Gardner, businesswoman Dee Robinson Reid, rapper Lupe Fiasco and WVON.
The honoring of Leak and other heroes will be held Saturday, September 7, 2013, at ETA Square, 7558 So. South Chicago Avenue from 7 p.m. to 12 midnight.
Leak, who is also a trustee at the Chicago State University, will celebrate his 80th year in business in October having been located in the Chatham community for the past 54-years. It is the business his parents, Rev. Andrew R. Leak and wife, Dottie L. Leak, began in 1933 during the depression and the year of the Worldâ€™s Fair in Chicago where his father worked as a bathroom attendant.
With a made up mind, Leakâ€™s parents opened the funeral home at 41st and Michigan in 1933 after saving up $500 and a matching amount received as an inheritance after the death of Mrs. Leakâ€™s father.
They then moved to 4504 So. State Street where Rev. Leak remained until September of 1959 until the city declared imminent domain poised to build the Robert Taylor Homes, which have now been razed.
The Leakâ€™s moved to its current Chatham site, 7838 So. Cottage Grove, where they have been for 52 of the 80 years of the funeral homesâ€™ existence. In 1959, Chatham was in racial transition and whites quickly existed.
â€œWe happened to have come into this area when blacks were migrating from the Bronzeville area into Englewood, Chatham and into Woodlawn,â€ recalled Leak. â€œWhen we moved in, it was half-white, half-black but it quickly evolved into an all black community five-years after our arrival.â€
There was a white-owned restaurant across the street from Leakâ€™s Funeral Home and the owner refused to allow blacks to enter his eatery; that is all except Mr. Leakâ€™s father who befriended the owner, ate in his restaurant and talked to him about integration. However, the owner still refused to allow blacks into his business and during the mid 1960â€™s his restaurant mysteriously caught on fire and was destroyed.
Determined to continue their â€œthrivingâ€ businesses at their new Cottage Grove site, the Leakâ€™s held an open house in 1959. Pastors, gospel singers and business owners came. The Leakâ€™s thought that was a good sign success would soon follow. His hopes were dashed because for the next 45-days, they did not received a single call.
Fearing they may have moved too far from their business base, the Leaks began to think they may had made a grave error in coming to Chatham, but one day a single mother walked in. Her 10-year-old daughter had died and she had no insurance. Rev. Leak told her, â€œYou may not realize this but you are the first person to come to this funeral home seeking our services.â€ As an award, he gave her a funeral â€œfit for a princess,â€ recalled Mr. Leak. â€œWe gave her the best casket, best service all at no cost.
â€œAfter my father made that decision, the telephones began to ring off the hook from families seeking our services and our business began at that moment to be a vibrant business that continues to this dayâ€¦and all based upon my father making that decision we think was directed by God to give that lady who had no resources a funeralâ€¦.â€
There was racism even at the Oakwood Cemetery. When a mother came to the Leakâ€™s and revealed that the then all-white Cemetery refused to bury her daughter, Rev. Leak, the NAACP and Rev. Clay Evans organized a march and today it is integrated and is where the late Mayor Harold Washington and other notables like Jesse Owens are buried.
Rev. Leak also provided limousine service to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to Chicago. Mr. Leak was the chauffeur and says he is honored to have driven Dr. King around the city.
â€œMy dad and Edwin were good friends along with Al Raby and a group of ministers extended an invitation to Dr. King to come to Chicago. That was the beginning of the Northern trek via Chicago by Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) which was a new organization Dr. King had established.â€
The Leakâ€™s were always civil rights-minded and ran their funeral home like a family business with Mr. Leak sleeping on the premises after he graduated from high school and went on to Wilson Junior College. He stayed there because he was needed, as am ambulance driver. Leak stayed in a one-room area at the funeral home until 1960 when he went into the Army. He was discharged in 1962 and went back home to live with his parents but sometimes still staying at the funeral home.
In 1993, his father died at the age of 87. Rev. Leak was still working at the funeral home when he passed. That is when Mr. Leak took over the reigns of the family-owned business and began to groom his son, Spencer Leak, Jr. to carry on his familyâ€™s business for the third generation.
Not only did Leak take over his fatherâ€™s business including once saving it from foreclosure, but he also adopted his dadâ€™s giving spirit. Leak will not turn away anyone who doesnâ€™t have funds to bury their loved ones especially victims of violence.
And, that included helping to bury most of the 21 people who were trampled to death during the 2003 E2 Nightclub tragedy at 24th and Michigan where about 50 were injured after security guards sprayed pepper spray to break up a fight. â€œWe will allowed them to have a funeral,â€ Leak said explaining he offered them a payment plan or no costs based on their financial status. It is a formula he still adheres to.
Today, Mr. Leak continues to give back to the community including to black churches which he has donated funds to help them remain open at the expense of nearly losing his own funeral home which once was going into foreclosure.
Like his father, the funeral home is virtually a family affair with his wife, Henrietta, whom he married 44-years ago, being the vice president of Public Relations. His son, Spencer Leak, Jr. is the Vice President and heir apparent. His son Stephen is vice president of administration and personnel, another son, Stacey Robert Leak, is an executive assistant to TV Judge Greg Mathis, and he has several nephews in the business as well.
When asked about the violence in Chicago and how has that impacted his business, Leak said he has buried more than 100 of the 502 homicide victims last year.Â â€œTo put those children in caskets in the prime of their life is tragic set of circumstancesâ€¦.â€ He said, â€œOur problem is not Jim Crow but Jimmy Crow of the black man.â€ He called for peace in the community and said if Dr. King were alive, he would be heartbroken.
In the spirit of his father, Mr. Leak has expanded his services to include a repast room where mourners can eat and socialize as they mourn the deaths of their loved ones. He has also opened a second funeral home, at 18400 South Pulaski Rd., Country Club Hills, Illinois.
And for more than 40-years, Mr. Leak has a gospel radio show each Sunday 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 1390 AM broadcast live from his Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel where he keeps the community informed on many social issues.
In celebrating his 80th year in business, the Leakâ€™s are even more committed to serving the community including the indigent. They believe that it was God who founded the funeral home and the vision of Rev. Leak, his humility and his planting the seeds of success and concern for others into the next generation that has sustained this iconic business. Leakâ€™s son, Spencer, Jr., the apparent heir to this third generation business, has learned well at his fatherâ€™s side and continues to improve and upgrade this historic business as he prepares for another Leak member to take over one day.
Photo Caption: Leak Family
Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: Chintabernie@aol.com.