Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reaching Out to Mary Barrett Washington, 1875-1942

During the summer of 2013, my brother Flick and I took a day trip to visit our Cousin Elizabeth Tyus (Cousin Lizzie)  in Ashtabula, Ohio.  While sitting around laughing, talking, and enjoying the meal she prepared for us, she revealed that her grandmother, Mary Washington, died and was buried in Chicago IL.  Cousin Lizzie was a child but she remembered that time when she saw her mother cry.  Her mother, Estelle Washington Tyus (Aunt Stella), had visited her sick mother in Chicago IL and came home when it seemed that her mother was stable.  A few days later she received the news that her mother had passed but she couldn't afford to go back to Chicago for the funeral.  Cousin Lizzie said that her mother held on to the phone, crying and wailing for a long time after the call had ended. 

Up until that point I had always thought that my great grandmother had died and been buried in Ashtabula perhaps living with her daughter, Estella.  Or maybe she had been buried in Mississippi, where she lived from 1900 until 1930  --  according to the 1900 through 1930 U.S. census records.  Yet another lesson to never assume with family research and the importance of talking with the elders!

So with the knowledge about my great grandmother's death, I virtually visited the Cook County Vital Records department where I found and purchased a copy of my great-grandmother's death certificate.

From November 11-16, 2014 I was in Chicago attending the National Association of Black Storytellers Festival and Conference (NABS).  I arrived a day early for the conference so I could locate my great-grandmother's grave site.

On November 11, 2014 I visited the Lincoln Cemetery, Cook County, Worth IL 

History of Lincoln Cemetery
In 1911, a group of black funeral directors approached the owner of Oak Hill Cemetery and proposed that a portion of the undeveloped land that he owned be opened as an African-American Cemetery. Mr. Olson agreed and Lincoln Cemetery was opened. Its first burial took place in April 1911.

Through nearly 100 years, Lincoln Cemetery has served thousands of well-known families.

Lincoln has grown through the years and today consists of three areas, each with a unique history and appearance. Old Lincoln is approximately 71 acres at the northwest corner at 12300 S. Kedzie Avenue in Chicago. Lincoln Cemetery South is approximately 23 acres at the southwest corner. Lincoln Cemetery East is approximately 18 acres on the northeast corner.
 from Lincoln Cemetery website

The office staff was extremely helpful, calling a caretaker to escort me and my daughter to the unmarked grave.  It was a beautifully serene area with few headstones.  It touched me that at the time my great grandmother died (December 1942), the family probably couldn't afford a funeral, let alone a headstone.  It was evident that probably many other families were in the same way financially.  

As we drove back to our hotel, my daughter was full of questions and I was happy to share what I knew about family connections and what the paper trail had revealed to me so far.  We called my mother later that day and she was amazed at my "find". Unfortunately, she doesn't recall ever meeting her grandmother or even hearing stories about her.  So I will continue to follow paper trails and try to get the remaining elders to open up about family history.


  1. You are so right about the headstone, or lack thereof. I remember the insurance man coming around to my grandma's house in Ark. collecting the premium. And how so many scrimped and saved to pay that premium, so they might be "put away" properly.
    On the flip side, ofttimes people did receive 'proper' burials, and got headstones, etc. and either the cemetery isn't/wasn't maintained, records weren't kept, and/or it's vandalized. I have relatives buried in the now historic Star Cemetery in Shreveport,La. In its heyday, that WAS the place to be laid to rest. In all honesty, I DON'T know if they were able to purchase headstones, but I do know that by the time I began research and found them, The cemetery had NO records,so I don't even know where their graves are. When I visited the site, it was in a state of disrepair, with stones, broken, crumbled, strewn about, or simply lost. It is my understanding that it is maintained now.

  2. I've heard about the insurance man coming around. I hope you get a chance to go back to Shreveport and find it in better condition. So sad about many of the "Colored" cemeteries.